Epic poetry

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Tablet containing a fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh British Museum Flood Tablet.jpg
Tablet containing a fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh

An epic poem, epic, epos, or epopee is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily involving a time beyond living memory in which occurred the extraordinary doings of the extraordinary men and women who, in dealings with the gods or other superhuman forces, gave shape to the mortal universe for their descendants, the poet and his audience, to understand themselves as a people or nation. [1]

Contents

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. [2] The most famous example of classical epyllion is perhaps Catullus 64.

Etymology

The English word epic comes from the Latin epicus, which itself comes from the Ancient Greek adjective ἐπικός (epikos), from ἔπος (epos), [3] "word, story, poem." [4]

Overview

Originating before the invention of writing, primary epics were composed by bards who used complex rhetorical and metrical schemes by which they could memorize the epic as received in tradition and add to the epic in their performances. Hence aside from writers like Dante, Camões, and Milton, Apollonius of Rhodes in his Argonautica and Virgil in Aeneid adopted and adapted Homer's style and subject matter, but used devices available only to those who write, and in their works Nonnus' Dionysiaca and Tulsidas' Sri Ramacharit Manas also used stylistic elements typical of epics.

The oldest epic recognized is the Epic of Gilgamesh (c.2500–1300 BCE), which was recorded in ancient Sumer during the Neo-Sumerian Empire. The poem details the exploits of Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk. Although recognized as a historical figure, Gilgamesh, as represented in the epic, is a largely legendary or mythical figure. [5]

The longest epic written is the ancient Indian Mahabharata , which consists of 100,000 ślokas or over 200,000 verse lines (each shloka is a couplet), as well as long prose passages, so that at ~1.8 million words it is roughly four times the length of the Rāmāyaṇa , and roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. [6] [7] [8]

Famous examples of epic poetry include the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh , the ancient Indian Mahabharata and Rāmāyaṇa , the Tamil Silappatikaram , the Persian Shahnameh , the Ancient Greek Odyssey and Iliad , Virgil's Aeneid , the Old English Beowulf , Dante's Divine Comedy , the Finnish Kalevala , the German Nibelungenlied , the French Song of Roland , the Spanish Cantar de mio Cid , the Portuguese Os Lusíadas, the Armenian Daredevils of Sassoun, John Milton's Paradise Lost , and Adam Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz .

Oral epics

The first epics were products of preliterate societies and oral history poetic traditions.[ citation needed ] Oral tradition was used alongside written scriptures to communicate and facilitate the spread of culture. [9] 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.

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.[ citation needed ]

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. [10]

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) [11]

An attempt to delineate ten main characteristics of an epic: [11]

  1. Begins in medias res.
  2. The setting is vast, covering many nations, the world or the universe.
  3. Begins with an invocation to a muse (epic invocation).
  4. Begins with a statement of the theme.
  5. Includes the use of epithets.
  6. Contains long lists, called an epic catalogue.
  7. Features long and formal speeches.
  8. Shows divine intervention in human affairs.
  9. Features heroes that embody the values of the civilization.
  10. 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 cultures.

Conventions of epics:[ citation needed ]

  1. Proposition: 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).[ citation needed ]
  2. 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. [12] (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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Epithet : Heavy use of repetition or stock phrases: e.g., Homer's "rosy-fingered dawn" and "wine-dark sea."

Form

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 Sumerian epic poems did not use any kind of poetic meter and lines did not have consistent lengths; [13] instead, Sumerian poems derived their rhythm solely through constant repetition, with subtle variations between lines. [13] Indo-European epic poetry, by contrast, usually places strong emphasis on the importance of line consistency and poetic meter. [13] Ancient Greek and Latin poems were written in dactylic hexameter. [14] Old English, German and Norse poems were written in alliterative verse, [15] usually without rhyme. Italian, Spanish and Portuguese long poems were usually written in terza rima [16] or especially ottava rima. [17] From the 14th century English epic poems were written in heroic couplets, [18] and rhyme royal, [19] though in the 16th century the Spenserian stanza [20] and blank verse [21] 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. [22] In Russian, iambic tetrameter verse is the most popular. [23] In Serbian poetry, the decasyllable is the only form employed. [24] [25]

See also

Related Research Articles

Dactylic hexameter is a form of meter or rhythmic scheme in poetry. It is traditionally associated with the quantitative meter of classical epic poetry in both Greek and Latin and was consequently considered to be the grand style of Western classical poetry. Some premier examples of its use are Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, and Ovid's Metamorphoses. Hexameters also form part of elegiac poetry in both languages, the elegiac couplet being a dactylic hexameter line paired with a dactylic pentameter line.

The elegiac couplet is a poetic form used by Greek lyric poets for a variety of themes usually of smaller scale than the epic. Roman poets, particularly Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid, adopted the same form in Latin many years later. As with the English heroic, each couplet usually makes sense on its own, while forming part of a larger work.

Gilgamesh Sumerian ruler and protagonist of the Epic of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh was a major hero in ancient Mesopotamian mythology, and is the protagonist of the Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem written in Akkadian during the late 2nd millennium BC. He was also most likely a historical king of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk, who was posthumously deified. His rule probably would have taken place sometime between 2800 and 2500 BC, though he became a major figure in Sumerian legend during the Third Dynasty of Ur.

Homer name ascribed by the ancient Greeks to the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey

Homer is the presumed author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, two epic poems that are the central works of ancient Greek literature. The Iliad is set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek kingdoms. It focuses on a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles lasting a few weeks during the last year of the war. The Odyssey focuses on the ten-year journey home of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, after the fall of Troy. Many accounts of Homer's life circulated in classical antiquity, the most widespread being that he was a blind bard from Ionia, a region of central coastal Anatolia in present-day Turkey. Modern scholars consider these accounts legendary.

Hesiod Ancient Greek poet

Hesiod was an ancient Greek poet generally thought to have been active between 750 and 650 BC, around the same time as Homer. He is generally regarded as the first written poet in the Western tradition to regard himself as an individual persona with an active role to play in his subject. Ancient authors credited Hesiod and Homer with establishing Greek religious customs. Modern scholars refer to him as a major source on Greek mythology, farming techniques, early economic thought, archaic Greek astronomy and ancient time-keeping.

A heroic couplet is a traditional form for English poetry, commonly used in epic and narrative poetry, and consisting of a rhyming pair of lines in iambic pentameter. Use of the heroic couplet was pioneered by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Legend of Good Women and the Canterbury Tales, and generally considered to have been perfected by John Dryden and Alexander Pope in the Restoration Age and early 18th century respectively.

Poetry Form of literature

Poetry is a form of literature that uses aesthetic and often rhythmic qualities of language—such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre—to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.

Mock-heroic, mock-epic or heroi-comic works are typically satires or parodies that mock common Classical stereotypes of heroes and heroic literature. Typically, mock-heroic works either put a fool in the role of the hero or exaggerate the heroic qualities to such a point that they become absurd.

Narrative poetry is a form of poetry that tells a story, often making the voices of a narator and characters as well; the entire story is usually written in metered verse. Narrative poems do not need rhyme. The poems that make up this genre may be short or long, and the story it relates to may be complex. It is normally dramatic, with objectives, diverse and meter. Narrative poems include epics, ballads, idylls, and lays.

Heroic verse consists of the rhymed iambic line or heroic couplet. The term is used in English exclusively.

This glossary of literary terms is a list of definitions of terms and concepts used in the discussion, classification, analysis, and criticism of all types of literature, such as poetry, novels, and picture books, as well as of grammar, syntax, and language techniques. For a more complete glossary of terms relating to poetry in particular, see Glossary of poetry terms.

History of poetry

Poetry as an art form predates written text. The earliest poetry is believed to have been recited or sung, employed as a way of remembering oral history, genealogy, and law. Poetry is often closely related to musical traditions, and the earliest poetry exists in the form of hymns, and other types of song such as chants. As such poetry is a verbal art. Many of the poems surviving from the ancient world are recorded prayers, or stories about religious subject matter, but they also include historical accounts, instructions for everyday activities, love songs, and fiction. Many scholars, particularly those researching the Homeric tradition and the oral epics of the Balkans, suggest that early writing shows clear traces of older oral traditions, including the use of repeated phrases as building blocks in larger poetic units. A rhythmic and repetitious form would make a long story easier to remember and retell, before writing was available as a reminder. Thus many ancient works, from the Vedas to the Odyssey, appear to have been composed in poetic form to aid memorization and oral transmission, in prehistoric and ancient societies. Poetry appears among the earliest records of most literate cultures, with poetic fragments found on early monoliths, runestones and stelae.

<i>Aoidos</i> ancient Greek singer from the time of the poet Homer

The Greek word aoidos referred to a classical Greek singer. In modern Homeric scholarship aoidos is used by some as the technical term for a skilled oral epic poet in the tradition to which the Iliad and Odyssey are believed to belong.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and introduction to poetry:

Folk poetry is poetry that is part of a society's folklore, usually part of their oral tradition. When sung, folk poetry becomes a folk song.

Oral-formulaic theory in Anglo-Saxon poetry refers to the application of the hypotheses of Milman Parry and Albert Lord on the Homeric Question to verse written in Old English. That is, the theory proposes that certain features of at least some of the poetry may be explained by positing oral-formulaic composition. While Anglo-Saxon epic poetry may bear some resemblance to Ancient Greek epics such as the Iliad and Odyssey, the question of if and how Anglo-Saxon poetry was passed down through an oral tradition remains a subject of debate, and the question for any particular poem unlikely to be answered with perfect certainty.

Sumerian literature Literature in Sumerian language

Sumerian literature constitutes the earliest known corpus of recorded literature, including the religious writings and other traditional stories maintained by the Sumerian civilization and largely preserved by the later Akkadian and Babylonian empires. These records were written in the Sumerian language during the Middle Bronze Age.

The long poem is a literary genre including all poetry of considerable length. Though the definition of a long poem is vague and broad, the genre includes some of the most important poetry ever written.

Traditionally, an epic refers to a genre of poetry. More recently, however, the style has grown to encompass a broad range of media, wherein the story has a theme of grandeur and heroism, just as in epic poetry. For this reason, scholars argue that 'the epic' has long since become "disembedded" from its origins in oral poetry, appearing in successive narrative media throughout history.

Epyllion short epic poem

In classical studies the term epyllion refers to a comparatively short narrative poem that shows formal affinities with epic, but betrays a preoccupation with themes and poetic techniques that are not generally or, at least, primarily characteristic of epic proper.

References

  1. Michael Meyer, The Bedford Introduction to Literature (Bedford: St. Martin's, 2005), 2128. ISBN   0-312-41242-8.
  2. "Epyllion". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 21 February 2019.
  3. "epic". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. Epic Online Etymology Dictionary
  5. Lawall, Sarah N.; Mack, Maynard, eds. (1999). Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: The Western Tradition. 1 (7 ed.). New York: W.W. Norton. pp.  10–11. ISBN   978-0-393-97289-4.
  6. James G. Lochtefeld (2002). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M . The Rosen Publishing Group. p.  399. ISBN   978-0-8239-3179-8.
  7. T.R.S. Sharma; June Gaur; Sahitya Akademi (2000). Ancient Indian Literature: An Anthology. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi. p. 137. ISBN   978-81-260-0794-3.
  8. Spodek, Howard. Richard Mason. The World's History. Pearson Education: 2006, New Jersey. 224, ISBN   0-13-177318-6
  9. Jack Goody (1987). The Interface Between the Written and the Oral . Cambridge University Press. pp.  110–121. ISBN   978-0-521-33794-6.
  10. Aristotle: Poetics, translated with an introduction and notes by M. Heath, (Penguin) London 1996
  11. 1 2 Taken from William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 8th ed., Prentice Hall, 1999.
  12. Battles, Paul (2014). "Toward a Theory of Old English Poetic Genres: Epic, Elegy, Wisdom Poetry, and the "Traditional Opening"". Studies in Philosophy. 111,1: 1–34. doi:10.1353/sip.2014.0001 via Project MUSE.
  13. 1 2 3 Kramer, Samuel Noah (1963), The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character, Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, pp.  184–185, ISBN   978-0-226-45238-8 CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  14. "Hexameter | poetry". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  15. "Alliterative verse | literature". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  16. "Terza rima | poetic form". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  17. "Ottava rima | poetic form". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  18. "Heroic couplet | poetry". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  19. "Rhyme royal | poetic form". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  20. "Spenserian stanza | poetic form". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  21. "Blank verse | poetic form". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  22. See: Trzynastozgłoskowiec, [in:] Wiktor Jarosław Darasz, Mały przewodnik po wierszu polskim, Kraków 2003 (in Polish).
  23. [Alexandra Smith, Montaging Pushkin: Pushkin and Visions of Modernity in Russian Twentieth Century Poetry, p. 184.]
  24. Meyer, David (27 November 2013). "Early Tahitian Poetics". Walter de Gruyter via Google Books.
  25. "The Spirit of the Serb – R. W. Seton-Watson 1915 « Britić".

Bibliography

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