An epic poem, epic, epos, or epopee is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation.
Milman Parry and Albert Lord have argued that the Homeric epics, the earliest works of Western literature, were fundamentally an oral poetic form. These works form the basis of the epic genre in Western literature. Nearly all of Western epic (including Virgil's Aeneid and Dante's Divine Comedy) self-consciously presents itself as a continuation of the tradition begun by these poems. Classical epic poetry employs a meter called dactylic hexameter and recounts a journey, either physical (as typified by Odysseus in the Odyssey) or mental (as typified by Achilles in the Iliad) or both. Epics also tend to highlight cultural norms and to define or call into question cultural values, particularly as they pertain to heroism.
Another type of epic poetry is epyllion (plural: epyllia), which is a brief narrative poem with a romantic or mythological theme. The term, which means "little epic", came into use in the nineteenth century. It refers primarily to the erudite, shorter hexameter poems of the Hellenistic period and the similar works composed at Rome from the age of the neoterics; to a lesser degree, the term includes some poems of the English Renaissance, particularly those influenced by Ovid. The most famous example of classical epyllion is perhaps Catullus 64.
Some of the most famous examples of epic poetry include the Ancient Greek Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, the ancient Indian Mahabharata, the Old English Beowulf, Dante's Divine Comedy, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, John Milton's Paradise Lost, the French Song of Roland, the Finnish Kalevala, and the German Nibelungenlied.
The English word Epic comes from the Latin epicus, which itself comes from the Ancient Greek adjective ἐπικός (epikos), from ἔπος (epos), "word, story, poem".
The English "epos" is likewise from the Latin epos, from Greek ἔπος, epos
The word "epopee" is from French épopée, from neo-Latin epopoeia, from Ancient Greek ἐποποιία (epopoiia).
Oral epics or world folk epics
The first epics were products of preliterate societies and oral history poetic traditions. In these traditions, poetry is transmitted to the audience and from performer to performer by purely oral means. Early twentieth-century study of living oral epic traditions in the Balkans by Milman Parry and Albert Lord demonstrated the paratactic model used for composing these poems. What they demonstrated was that oral epics tend to be constructed in short episodes, each of equal status, interest and importance. This facilitates memorization, as the poet is recalling each episode in turn and using the completed episodes to recreate the entire epic as he performs it. Parry and Lord also contend that the most likely source for written texts of the epics of Homer was dictation from an oral performance.
Poets in literate societies have sometimes copied the epic format. The earliest surviving European examples are the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes and Virgil's Aeneid, which follow both the style and subject matter of Homer. Other obvious examples are Nonnus' Dionysiaca, Tulsidas' Sri Ramacharit Manas.
Composition and conventions
In his work Poetics, Aristotle defines an epic as one of the forms of poetry, contrasted with lyric poetry and with drama in the form of tragedy and comedy.
In A Handbook to Literature (1999), Harmon and Holman define an epic:
Epic: a long narrative poem in elevated style presenting characters of high position in adventures forming an organic whole through their relation to a central heroic figure and through their development of episodes important to the history of a nation or race. (Harmon and Holman)
An attempt to delineate ten main characteristics of an epic:
- Begins in medias res.
- The setting is vast, covering many nations, the world or the universe.
- Begins with an invocation to a muse (epic invocation).
- Begins with a statement of the theme.
- Includes the use of epithets.
- Contains long lists, called an epic catalogue.
- Features long and formal speeches.
- Shows divine intervention on human affairs.
- Features heroes that embody the values of the civilization.
- Often features the tragic hero's descent into the Underworld or hell.
The hero generally participates in a cyclical journey or quest, faces adversaries that try to defeat him in his journey and returns home significantly transformed by his journey. The epic hero illustrates traits, performs deeds, and exemplifies certain morals that are valued by the society the epic originates from. Many epic heroes are recurring characters in the legends of their native culture.
Conventions of epics:
- Preposition: Opens by stating the theme or cause of the epic. This may take the form of a purpose (as in Milton, who proposed "to justify the ways of God to men"); of a question (as in the Iliad, which Homer initiates by asking a Muse to sing of Achilles' anger); or of a situation (as in the Song of Roland, with Charlemagne in Spain).
- Invocation: Writer invokes a Muse, one of the nine daughters of Zeus. The poet prays to the Muses to provide him with divine inspiration to tell the story of a great hero. (This convention is restricted to cultures influenced by European Classical culture. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, or the Bhagavata Purana do not contain this element.)
- In medias res: narrative opens "in the middle of things", with the hero at his lowest point. Usually flashbacks show earlier portions of the story.
- Enumeratio: Catalogues and genealogies are given. These long lists of objects, places, and people place the finite action of the epic within a broader, universal context. Often, the poet is also paying homage to the ancestors of audience members.
- Epithet: Heavy use of repetition or stock phrases: e.g., Homer's "rosy-fingered dawn" and "wine-dark sea".
Many verse forms have been used in epic poems through the ages, but each language's literature typically gravitates to one form, or at least to a very limited set. Ancient Greek and Latin poems were written in dactylic hexameter. Old English, German and Norse poems were written in alliterative verse, usually without rhyme. Italian, Spanish and Portuguese long poems were usually written in terza rima  or especially ottava rima. From the 14th century English epic poems were written in heroic couplets, and rhyme royal, though in the 16th century the Spenserian stanza and blank verse were also introduced. The French alexandrine is currently the heroic line in French literature, though in earlier periods the decasyllable took precedence. In Polish literature, couplets of Polish alexandrines (syllabic lines of 7+6 syllables) prevail. In Russian, iambic tetrameter verse is the most popular. In Serbian poetry, the decasyllable is the only form employed.
Notable epic poems
The first page of the Beowulf
manuscript, 8th to 10th century.
- This list can be compared with two others, national epic and list of world folk-epics.
Ancient epics (to 500)
20th to 10th century BC
8th to 6th century BC
- Iliad, ascribed to Homer (Greek mythology)
- Odyssey, ascribed to Homer (Greek mythology)
- Works and Days, ascribed to Hesiod (Greek mythology)
- Theogony, ascribed to Hesiod (Greek mythology)
- Catalogue of Women, ascribed to Hesiod (Greek mythology)
- Shield of Heracles, ascribed to Hesiod (Greek mythology)
- Cypria, Aethiopis, Little Iliad, Iliupersis, Nostoi and Telegony, forming the so-called Epic Cycle (only fragments survive)
- Oedipodea, Thebaid, Epigoni and Alcmeonis, forming the so-called Theban Cycle (only fragments survive)
- A series of poem ascribed to Hesiod during antiquity (of which only fragments survive): Aegimius (alternatively ascribed to Cercops of Miletus), Astronomia, Descent of Perithous, Idaean Dactyls (almost completely lost), Megala Erga, Megalai Ehoiai, Melampodia and Wedding of Ceyx
- Capture of Oechalia, ascribed to Homer or Creophylus of Samos during antiquity (only fragment survives)
- Phocais, ascribed to Homer during antiquity (only fragment survives)
- Titanomachy ascribed to Eumelus of Corinth (only fragment survives)
- Danais (written by one of the cyclic poets and from which the Danaid tetralogy of Aeschylus draws its material), Minyas and Naupactia, almost completely lost
8th century BC to 3rd century AD
3rd century BC
1st century BC
1st century AD
2nd to 5th century
3rd to 4th century
Medieval epics (500–1500)
Statue of Iranian poet Ferdowsi
in Rome, Italy. Ferdowsi's national epic Shahnameh
played an important role in revival of Iranian patriotism
and the Persian language
after both were systematically suppressed by the Arab occupation of Iran
8th to 10th century
Modern epics (from 1500)
- The Tale of Kiều by Nguyễn Du (c. 1800)
- Thalaba the Destroyer by Robert Southey (1801)
- Madoc by Robert Southey (1805)
- The Columbiad by Joel Barlow (1807)
- Milton: A Poem by William Blake (1804–1810)
- Marmion by Walter Scott (1808)
- Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Lord Byron, narrating the travels of Childe Harold (1812-1818)
- Queen Mab by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1813)
- Roderick the Last of the Goths by Robert Southey (1814)
- The Lord of the Isles by Walter Scott (1813)
- Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1815)
- The Revolt of Islam (Laon and Cyntha) by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1817)
- Harold the Dauntless by Walter Scott (1817)
- Endymion, (1818) by John Keats
- Hyperion (1818) and The Fall of Hyperion (1819) by John Keats
- The Battle of Marathon by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1820)
- Phra Aphai Mani by Sunthorn Phu (1821 or 1823–1845)
- Don Juan by Lord Byron (1824), an example of a "mock" epic in that it parodies the epic style of the author's predecessors
- Tamerlane by Edgar Allan Poe (1827)
- Creation, Man and the Messiah by Henrik Wergeland (1829)
- Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, translated by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1833)
- Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz (1834)
- The Baptism on the Savica (Krst pri Savici) by France Prešeren (1836)
- Florante at Laura, an awit by Francisco Balagtas (1838)
- King Alfred by John Fitchett (completed by Robert Roscoe and published in 1841-1842)
- János Vitéz by Sándor Petőfi (1845)
- Smrt Smail-age Čengića by Ivan Mažuranić (1846)
- Toldi (1846), Toldi szerelme ("Toldi's Love", 1879) and Toldi estéje ("Toldi's Night", 1848) by János Arany, forming the so-called "Toldi trilogy"
- Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1847)
- The Mountain Wreath by Petar II Petrović-Njegoš (1847)
- The Tales of Ensign Stål by Johan Ludvig Runeberg (first part published in 1848, second part published in 1860)
- Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot (1849 Finnish mythology)
- I-Juca-Pirama by Gonçalves Dias (1851)
- Kalevipoeg by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald (1853 Estonian mythology)
- The Prelude by William Wordsworth
- Song of Myself by Walt Whitman (1855)
- The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1855)
- The Saga of King Olaf by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1856-1863)
- Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1857)
- Meghnad Badh Kavya by Michael Madhusudan Dutta (1861)
- Terje Vigen by Henrik Ibsen (1862)
- La Légende des Siècles (The Legend of the Centuries) by Victor Hugo (1859–1877)
- The Earthly Paradise by William Morris (1868-1870)
- Ibonia, oral epic of Madagascar (first transcription: 1870)
- Martín Fierro by José Hernández (1872)
- Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson (c. 1874)
- Clarel by Herman Melville (1876)
- The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs by William Morris (1876)
- L'Atlàntida by Jacint Verdaguer (1877)
- The Light of Asia by Edwin Arnold (1879)
- The City of Dreadful Night by James Thomson (B.V.) (finished in 1874, published in 1880)
- Tristram of Lyonesse by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1882)
- Eros and Psyche by Robert Bridges (1885)
- La Fin de Satan by Victor Hugo (written between 1855 and 1860, published in 1886)
- Canigó by Jacint Verdaguer (1886)
- Lāčplēsis ('The Bear-Slayer') by Andrejs Pumpurs (1888; Latvian Mythology)
- Tabaré by Juan Zorrilla de San Martín (1888; national epic of Uruguay)
- The Wanderings of Oisin by William Butler Yeats (1889)
- Lục Vân Tiên by Nguyễn Đình Chiểu
- Amir Arsalan, narrated by Mohammad Ali Naqib al-Mamalek to the Qajar Shah of Persia
- Gesta Berengarii imperatoris
- Epic of Bamana Segu, oral epic of the Bambara people, composed in the 19th century and recorded in the 20th century
- Epic of Darkness, tales and legends of primeval China
- Epic of Jangar, poem of the Oirat people
- Epic of Köroğlu, Turkic oral tradition written down mostly in 18th century
- Epic of the Forgotten, Bulgarian poetic saga
- Hikayat Seri Rama, Malay versione of the Ramayana
- Hinilawod, Filipino epic from the island of Panay
- Khun Chang Khun Phaen, a Thai poem
- Klei Khan Y Dam San, a Vietnamese poem
- Koti and Chennayya and Epic of Siri, Tulu poems
- Kutune Shirka, sacred yukar epic of the Ainu people of which several translations exist
- Parsifal by Richard Wagner (opera, composed 1880-1882)
- Pasyón, Filipino religious epic, of which the 1703 and 1814 versions are popular
- Ramakien, Thailand's national epic derived from the Ramayana
- Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner (opera, composed 1848-1874)
- Siribhoovalaya, a unique work of multi-lingual literature written by Kumudendu Muni, a Jain monk
- Sundiata, an epic of Mali
- Yadegar-e Zariran (Middle Persian)
- Yama Zatdaw, Burmese version of the Ramayana
- ^ Michael Meyer, The Bedford Introduction to Literature (Bedford: St. Martin's, 2005), 2128. ISBN 0-312-41242-8.
- ^ "epic". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- ^ Epic Online Etymology Dictionary
- ^ "epos". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- ^ "epopee". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- ^ Aristotle: Poetics, translated with an introduction and notes by M. Heath, (Penguin) London 1996
- ^ a b Taken from William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 8th ed., Prentice Hall, 1999.
- ^ Hexameter, poetry at Encyclopædia Britannica.
- ^ Alliterative verse literature at Encyclopædia Britannica.
- ^ Terza rima, poetic form at Encyclopædia Britannica.
- ^ Ottava rima, poetic form at Encyclopædia Britannica.
- ^ Heroic couplet, poetry at Encyclopædia Britannica.
- ^ Rhyme royal, poetic form at Encyclopædia Britannica.
- ^ Spenserian stanza, poetic form at Encyclopædia Britannica.
- ^ Blank verse, poetic form at Encyclopædia Britannica.
- ^ See: Trzynastozgłoskowiec, [in:] Wiktor Jarosław Darasz, Mały przewodnik po wierszu polskim, Kraków 2003 (in Polish).
- ^ [Alexandra Smith, Montaging Pushkin: Pushkin and Visions of Modernity in Russian Twentieth Century Poetry, p. 184.]
- ^ Meyer, Early Tahitian Poetics.
- ^ Robert William Seton-Watson, The Spirit of the Serb.
- ^ According to that article, world folk epics are those that are not just literary masterpieces, but also an integral part of the world view of a people, originally oral, later written down by one or several authors.
- ^ Fallon, Oliver. Bhatti's Poem: The Death of Rávana (Bhaṭṭikāvya). New York 2009: Clay Sanskrit Library, . ISBN 978-0-8147-2778-2, ISBN 0-8147-2778-6.
- ^ "The Lusiads". World Digital Library. 1800–1882. Retrieved 2013-08-31.
- ^ Pender, Patricia (2012). Early Modern Women's Writing and the Rhetoric of Modesty. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 166. ISBN 9781137008015.
- ^ a b Stephen Greenblatt et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume D, 9th edition (Norton, 2012)
- Jan de Vries: Heroic Song and Heroic Legend ISBN 0-405-10566-5.
- Hashmi, Alamgir (2011). "Eponymous Écriture and the Poetics of Reading a Transnational Epic". Dublin Quarterly, 15.
- Cornel Heinsdorff: Christus, Nikodemus und die Samaritanerin bei Juvencus. Mit einem Anhang zur lateinischen Evangelienvorlage, Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte 67, Berlin/New York 2003, ISBN 3-11-017851-6.
||The examples and perspective in this article may not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (March 2017)