Epic Poetry

From Gerald R. Lucas
Bust of Homer, British Museum

Epic poetry is from the human age of expansion. It tells the tales of heroism and ferocity from our distant past, where the roots of civilization were sewn.

In its strict use by literary critics, the term epic or heroic poem is applied to a work that meets at least the following criteria: it is a long narrative poem an a great and serious subject,[1] related in an elevated style, and centered on a heroic or quasi-divine figure on whose actions depends the fate of a tribe, a nation, or the human race.[1]

The traditional epics (also called "primary epics" or "folk epics") were shaped by a literary artist from historical and legendary materials which had developed in the oral traditions of his nation during a period of expansion and warfare. To this group are ascribed the Iliad and Odyssey of the Greek Homer, and the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf.

The "literary" or "secondary" epics were composed by sophisticated craftsmen in deliberate imitation of the traditional form. Of this kind is Virgil's Latin poem the Aeneid, which later served as the chief model for Milton's literary epic Paradise Lost; and Paradise Lost in turn became a model for Keat's fragmentary epic Hyperion, as well as for Blake's several epics, or "prophetic books" (The Four Zoas, Milton, Jerusalem) which undertook to translate into Blake's own mythic terms the biblical design and materials which had served as Milton's subject matter.

Epic Characteristics

The epic was ranked by Aristotle (in his Poetics) as second only to tragedy,[2] and by Renaissance critics as the highest genre of all.[citation needed] The literary epic is certainly the most ambitious of poetic types, making immense demands on a poet's knowledge, invention, and skill to sustain the scope, grandeur, and variety of a poem that tends to encompass the world of its day and a large portion of its learning. Despite numerous attempts over nearly three-thousand years, we possess no more than a half dozen epic poems of indubitable greatness. Literary epics are highly conventional poems which commonly share the following features, derived ultimately from the traditional epics of Homer.

The hero is a figure of great national or even cosmic importance, and represents a culture's heroic ideal. In the Iliad, he is the Greek warrior Achilles, who is the son of a Neried, Thetis; and Virgil's Aeneas is the son of the goddess Venus. In Paradise Lost, Adam represents the entire human race, or if we regard Christ as the hero, he is both God and man. Blake's primal figure is the "universal man" Albion who incorporates, before his fall, man and god and the cosmos as well.

The setting of the poem is ample in scale, and may be worldwide, or even larger. Odysseus wanders over the Mediterranean basin (the whole of the world known to the author), and in Book 9 of the Odyssey, he descends into the underworld (as does Virgil's Aeneas). The scope of Paradise Lost is cosmic, for it takes place on earth, heaven, and in hell.

The action involves superhuman deeds in battle, such as Achilles' feats in the Trojan War, or a long and arduous journey intrepidly accomplished, such as the wanderings of Odysseus on his way back to his homeland, despite the opposition of some of the gods. Paradise Lost includes the war in heaven, the journey of Satan through chaos to discover the newly created world, and his desperately audacious attempt to outwit God by corrupting humanity, in which his success is ultimately frustrated by the sacrificial enterprise of Christ. And Gilgamesh portrays the eponymous hero's search for a fountain of youth after the death of his friend, Enkidu.

In these great actions, the gods and other supernatural beings take an interest or an active part — the Olympian gods in Homer, and Jehovah, Christ, and the angels in Paradise Lost. These supernatural agents were in the neoclassic age called the machinery, in the sense that they were a part of the literary contrivances of the epic.

An epic poem is a ceremonial performance and is narrated in a ceremonial style which is deliberately distanced from ordinary speech and proportioned to the grandeur and formality of the heroic subject matter and the epic architecture. Hence Milton's "grand style" — his Latinate diction and stylized syntax, his sonorous lists of names and wide-ranging allusions, and his imitation of Homer's epic similes and epithets. Also the great catalogs of heroes, weaponry, spoils, etc.


There are also some commonly adopted conventions in the structure and in the choice of episodes of the epic narrative; prominent among them are these elements.

The narrator begins by stating his argument, or theme, invokes a muse or guiding spirit to inspire him in his great undertaking, then addresses to the muse the epic question, the answer to which inaugurates the narrative proper (cf. Paradise Lost I.1-49).

The narrative starts in medias res, i.e., "in the midst of things", at a critical point in the action. Paradise Lost opens with the fallen angels in hell gathering their forces and planning their revenge. Not until Books V-VII does the angel Raphael relate to Adam the events in heaven which led to his situation; while in Books XI-XII, after the fall, Michael foretells to Adam future events up until Christ's second coming. Thus Milton's epic, although its action focuses on the temptation and the fall of man, encompasses all time from the creation to the end of the world. In the Iliad, Homer begins with the contention between the Greek champion Achilles and his leader Agamemnon: it is this formal challenge of Agamemnon's right that precipitates the critical actions in Homer's epic of war.

There are catalogs of some of the principle characters, introduced in formal detail, as in Milton's description of the procession of fallen angels in Book I of Paradise Lost. These characters are often given set speeches which reveal their diverse temperaments; an example is the debate in Pandemonium, Book II, and the formal debate among the aristoi in book one of the Iliad.


The Iliad is a menis, or a song of wrath. It tells the story of rage and the consequences of that rage on entire civilizations.

The Odyssey begins the tradition of the epic of return, or nostos. The story of the romance of a hero escaping incredible perils and arriving in the nick of time to reclaim his bride — a master of the house coming back to reclaim his own.

The Aeneid develops the theme of return into one of rebirth; the end in New Troy becomes the starting point renewed and transformed by the hero’s quest.

The christian epic carries the same themes into a wide archetypal context; the action of the Bible includes the themes of the three great classical epics: theme of destruction and captivity of the city (Troy) in the Iliad; the theme of the return in the Odyssey; the theme of building a new city in the Aeneid. Adam is like Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas — a man of wrath, exiled from home because he angered God by going beyond his limit as a man. A provocation against God is the eating of food reserved for the deity. As with Odysseus, Adam's return home is contingent on appeasing of divine wrath by divine wisdom.


Actions appropriate to the epic include:

  • Deeds of heroes like Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Prometheus;
  • Battles against great odds, like Roland;
  • Wars between individual heroes as in the Iliad;
  • Real voyages as in the Odyssey; or allegorical voyages through a different terrain as in The Divine Comedy;
  • Initiation of great enterprises, as the founding of a new city in the Aeneid;
  • The performing of exploits, great and important; admirable actions accompanied by difficulty, temptations, and danger.

Primary Epic

The primary or natural epic comes from an oral tradition as a possible accumulation of lays or episodes.[1] They are shaped by a literary artist from historical and legendary materials which had developed in the oral traditions of his nation during a period of expansion and warfare. These epics were composed without the aid of writing, sung or chanted to a musical accompaniment. Thus the composition of the oral epics is looser because it was composed for recitation. They are also more episodic in structure — the episodes can be detached from the whole and may be enjoyed as separate poems or stories.

The heroic ideal suggests that the epic heroes in the oral epic are more concerned with their own personal self-fulfillment. The work focuses on the personal concept of heroism and the self-fulfillment and identity of the individual hero. The national concept is secondary. The language in the oral epics is formulaic: repetitious use of stock phrases and descriptions to aid in oral recitation. Tends toward pleasing the ear rather than the eye. Focus on the spoken word. The movement tends to be cyclical, the theme of the return. The primary epics were developed in cultures that have not yet attained a national identity or unity. Greek city-states, etc. Examples of the primary epic include: the Iliad, the Odyssey, Beowulf, and Gilgamesh.

Secondary Epic

Secondary epics are also called literary epics and were composed by sophisticated craftsmen in a deliberate imitation of the traditional form. Their efforts is attempt to use again in new circumstances what has already been a complete and satisfactory form of literature. The literary epics are composed more for readers in their structure and language, rather than for recitation and listening.[1] The concern is with the perfection of the word; sentences are carefully fashioned; words and phrases are more carefully chosen. There is less use of formulaic repetition.

The heroic ideal: the hero is more concerned with national or universal duty than with personal happiness or self-fulfillment (e.g., Aeneas leaves Dido to continue his nation's destiny). In a highly organized society, the unfettered individual has no place. The hero is inspired by service to his nation, world, or cosmos, not by individual prowess. Social ideal replaces personal identity. The hero becomes a symbol for the nation or world as a whole. The language suggests a written ceremony — a deliberate distancing from ordinary speech and proportioned to the grandeur and formality of the heroic subject matter and epic architecture. The "grand", "ornate", and "elevated" style. The epic's movement is toward rebirth. Aeneas leaves old Troy to found new Troy (Rome). The secondary epic is a product of highly structured cultures and societies, like Rome. Examples: the Aeneid, Paradise Lost, and The Divine Comedy.

Mock Epic

A mock epic, or mock heroic, poem imitates the elaborate form and ceremonious style of the epic genre, and applies it to a commonplace or trivial subject matter; the high brought low. In a masterpiece of this form, The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope views through grandiose epic perspective a quarrel between the beaux and belles of his day over the theft of Belinda's curl. The story includes such elements of epic protocol as supernatural machinery, a voyage, a visit to the underworld, the arming of the hero, epic lists, and a heroically scaled battle between the sexes — although with hatpins, snuff, and abusive language for weapons. The term mock heroic is often applied to other dignified poetic forms which are purposefully mismatched to a lowly subject; for example, to Thomas Gray's comic "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat".

Epic Similes

Also called Homeric or extended similes, epic similes are formal, sustained, and digressive similes in which the secondary subject, or vehicle, is developed far beyond its specific points of parallel to the primary subject, or tenor, becoming the more important aesthetic object for the moment. Essentially, the epic simile is an involved, elaborated comparison imitated from Homer by Virgil, Milton, and other writers of literary epics who employed it to enhance the ceremonial quality of the epic style. An outtake from the Iliad provides an example of an epic simile:

Epic Spirit

In addition to its strict use, the term epic is often applied to works which differ in many respects form this model, but manifest, suggests E.M.W. Tillyard, the epic spirit in the scale, the scope, and the profound human importance of their subjects. Tillyard suggests these four characteristics of the modern epic: high quality and seriousness, inclusiveness or amplitude, control and exactitude commensurate with exuberance, and an expression of the feelings of a large group of people.[3] Similarly, Brian Wilkie has remarked that epics constitute a family, with variable physiognomatic similarities, rather than a strictly definable genre.[4]

In this broad sense, Dante's Divine Comedy and Spenser's Faerie Queene are often called epics, as are works of prose fiction such as Melville's Moby Dick, and Tolstoy's War and Peace. Northrop Frye has described Joyce's Finnegans Wake as the "chief ironic epic of our time".[5] Some critics, like Patrick Parrander, even look to the genre of science fiction — in prose and film, like Frank Herbert's Dune and Carl Sagan's Contact — for a contemporary and continuing sense of the epic spirit.

See Also



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 McArthur 1992, p. 376.
  2. Aristotle, Poetics, chapter 26.
  3. Tillyard 1966, pp. 4–13.
  4. Wilkie 1965, p. 14.
  5. Frye 2015, p. 323.


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  • Cuddon, J. A. (1979). A Dictionary of Literary Terms. London: Penguin. ISBN 0140511121.
  • Frye, Northrup; Baker, Sheridan; Perkins, George; Perkins, Barbara M. (1997). The Harper Handbook to Literature. New York: Longman. ISBN 0673999432.
  • — (2015) [1957]. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Harmon, William; Holman, Hugh (2003). A Handbook to Literature (Nineth ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0130979988.
  • Hexter, Ralph (1993). A Guide to the Odyssey. New York: Vintage. ISBN 0679728473.
  • McArthur, Tom, ed. (1992). "Epic". The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford: Oxford UP. p. 376.
  • Parrander, Patrick (1980). "Science Fiction as Epic". Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching. London: Methuen. pp. 88–105.
  • Tillyard, E. M. W. (1966) [1954]. The English Epic and Its Background. New York: Oxford UP.
  • Wilkie, Brian (1965). Romantic Poets and Epic Tradition. University of Wisconsin Press.