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An epic poem 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 their audience, to understand themselves as a people or nation.
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."
In ancient Greek, 'epic' could refer to all poetry in dactylic hexameter (epea), which included not only Homer but also the wisdom poetry of Hesiod, the utterances of the Delphic oracle, and the strange theological verses attributed to Orpheus. Later tradition, however, has restricted the term 'epic' to heroic epic, as described in this article.
Originating before the invention of writing, primary epics, such as those of Homer, 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. Later writers like Virgil, Apollonius of Rhodes, Dante, Camões, and Milton adopted and adapted Homer's style and subject matter, but used devices available only to those who write.
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.
The longest epic written is the ancient Indian Mahabharata (c. 3rd century BC—3rd century AD),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 twice the length of Shahnameh , four times the length of the Rāmāyaṇa , and roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined.
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 Estonian Kalevipoeg , the German Nibelungenlied , the French Song of Roland , the Spanish Cantar de mio Cid , the Portuguese Os Lusíadas , the Armenian Daredevils of Sassoun , and John Milton's Paradise Lost. Epic poems of the modern era include Derek Walcott’s Omeros and Adam Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz . Paterson by William Carlos Williams published in five volumes from 1946 to 1958, was inspired in part by another modern epic, The Cantos by Ezra Pound.
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. 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.
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:
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.
The above passages convey the experience of epic poetry in the West, but somewhat different conventions have historically applied in India.
In the Indic mahākāvya epic genre, more emphasis was laid on description than on narration. Indeed, the traditional characteristics of a mahākāvya are listed as:
Classical epic poetry recounts a journey, either physical (as typified by Odysseus in the Odyssey ) or mental (as typified by Achilles in the Iliad ) or both.[ citation needed ] Epics also tend to highlight cultural norms and to define or call into question cultural values, particularly as they pertain to heroism.[ citation needed ]
The poet may begin by invoking a Muse or similar divinity. The poet prays to the Muses to provide him with divine inspiration to tell the story of a great hero.
Sing goddess the baneful wrath of Achilles son of Peleus - Iliad 1.1
Muse, tell me in verse of the man of many wiles - Odyssey 1.1
From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing - Hesiod, Theogony 1.1
Beginning with thee, O Phoebus, I will recount the famous deeds of men of old – Argonautica 1.1
Muse, remember to me the causes – Aeneid 1.8
Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
f Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire – Paradise Lost 1.6–7
An alternative or complementary form of proem, found in Virgil and his imitators, opens with the performative verb "I sing". Examples:
This Virgilian epic convention is referenced in Walt Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric."
Compare the first six lines of the Kalevala:
Mastered by desire impulsive,
By a mighty inward urging,
I am ready now for singing,
Ready to begin the chanting
Of our nation’s ancient folk-song
Handed down from by-gone ages.
These conventions are largely restricted to European classical culture and its imitators. The Epic of Gilgamesh , for example, or the Bhagavata Purana do not contain such elements, nor do early medieval Western epics that are not strongly shaped by the classical traditions, such as the Chanson de Roland or the Poem of the Cid.
Narrative opens "in the middle of things", with the hero at his lowest point. Usually flashbacks show earlier portions of the story. For example, the Iliad does not tell the entire story of the Trojan War, starting with the judgment of Paris, but instead opens abruptly on the rage of Achilles and its immediate causes. So too, Orlando Furioso is not a complete biography of Roland, but picks up from the plot of Orlando Innamorato, which in turn presupposes a knowledge of the romance and oral traditions.
Epic 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, such as the catalog of ships. Often, the poet is also paying homage to the ancestors of audience members. Examples:
In the Homeric and post-Homeric tradition, epic style is typically achieved through the use of the following stylistic features:
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;instead, Sumerian poems derived their rhythm solely through constant repetition and parallelism, with subtle variations between lines. Indo-European epic poetry, by contrast, usually places strong emphasis on the importance of line consistency and poetic meter. Ancient Greek epics were composed in dactylic hexameter. Very early Latin epicists, such Livius Andronicus and Gnaeus Naevius, used Saturnian meter. By the time of Ennius, however, Latin poets had adopted dactylic hexameter.
Dactylic hexameter has been adapted by a few anglophone poets such as Longfellow in "Evangeline", whose first line is as follows:
Old English, German and Norse poems were written in alliterative verse,usually without rhyme. The alliterative form can be seen in the Old English “Finnsburg Fragment” (alliterated sounds are in bold):
While the above classical and Germanic forms would be considered stichic, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese long poems favored stanzaic forms, usually written in terza rimaor especially ottava rima. Terza rima is a rhyming verse stanza form that consists of an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme. An example is found in the first lines of the Divine Comedy by Dante, who originated the form:
|Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita||A|
|mi ritrovai per una selva oscura||B|
|ché la diritta via era smarrita.||A|
|Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura||B|
|esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte||C|
|che nel pensier rinnova la paura!||B|
In ottava rima, each stanza consists of three alternate rhymes and one double rhyme, following the ABABABCC rhyme scheme. Example:
Canto l’arme pietose, e 'l Capitano
The sacred armies, and the godly knight,
|—Tasso: Gerusalemme Liberata , lines 1–8||—Translated by Edward Fairfax|
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 literature – such as the chanson de geste – the decasyllable grouped in laisses 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.
Balto-Finnic (e.g. Estonian, Finnish, Karelian) folk poetry uses a form of trochaic tetrameter that has been called the Kalevala meter. The Finnish and Estonian national epics, Kalevala and Kalevipoeg , are both written in this meter. The meter is thought to have originated during the Proto-Finnic period.
In Indic epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the shloka form is used.
The primary form of epic, especially as discussed in this article, is the heroic epic, including such works as the Iliad and Mahabharata. Ancient sources also recognized didactic epic as a category, represented by such works as Hesiod's Works and Days and Lucretius's De Rerum Natura.
A related type of poetry is the epyllion (plural: epyllia), 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.
Epyllion is to be understood as distinct from mock epic , another light form.
Romantic epic is a term used to designate works such as Morgante, Orlando Innamorato, Orlando Furioso and Gerusalemme Liberata, which freely lift characters, themes, plots and narrative devices from the world of prose chivalric romance.
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.
Gilgamesh was a major hero in ancient Mesopotamian mythology and the protagonist of the Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem written in Akkadian during the late 2nd millennium BC. He was likely a historical king of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk, who was posthumously deified. His rule probably would have taken place sometime in the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period (Mesopotamia), though he became a major figure in Sumerian legend during the Third Dynasty of Ur.
Homer was the presumed author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, two epic poems that are the foundational 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 Mycenaean 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.
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.
Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil or Vergil in English, was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He composed three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid.
Apollonius of Rhodes was an ancient Greek author, best known for the Argonautica, an epic poem about Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece. The poem is one of the few extant examples of the epic genre and it was both innovative and influential, providing Ptolemaic Egypt with a "cultural mnemonic" or national "archive of images", and offering the Latin poets Virgil and Gaius Valerius Flaccus a model for their own epics. His other poems, which survive only in small fragments, concerned the beginnings or foundations of cities, such as Alexandria and Cnidus places of interest to the Ptolemies, whom he served as a scholar and librarian at the Library of Alexandria. A literary dispute with Callimachus, another Alexandrian librarian/poet, is a topic much discussed by modern scholars since it is thought to give some insight into their poetry, although there is very little evidence that there ever was such a dispute between the two men. In fact almost nothing at all is known about Apollonius and even his connection with Rhodes is a matter for speculation. Once considered a mere imitator of Homer, and therefore a failure as a poet, his reputation has been enhanced by recent studies, with an emphasis on the special characteristics of Hellenistic poets as scholarly heirs of a long literary tradition writing at a unique time in history.
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 narrator 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.
Articles related to literature include:
The Georgics is a poem by Latin poet Virgil, likely published in 29 BCE. As the name suggests the subject of the poem is agriculture; but far from being an example of peaceful rural poetry, it is a work characterized by tensions in both theme and purpose.
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.
Oral poetry is a form of poetry that is composed and transmitted without the aid of writing. The complex relationships between written and spoken literature in some societies can make this definition hard to maintain.
This is a glossary 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.
The following outline is provided as an overview of and introduction to poetry:
Political verse, also known as decapentasyllabic verse, is a common metric form in Medieval and Modern Greek poetry. It is an iambic verse of fifteen syllables and has been the main meter of traditional popular and folk poetry since the Byzantine period.
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.
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.
Epic is a genre of narrative defined by heroic or legendary adventures presented in a long format. Originating in the form of epic poetry, the genre also now applies to epic theatre, epic films, music, novels, stage play, television series, and video games. Scholars argue that 'the epic' has long since become "disembedded" from its origins in oral poetry.
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