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Poetry Guide: Epic

The epic is a broadly defined genre of poetry, and one of the major forms of narrative literature. It retells in a continuous narrative the life and works of a heroic or mythological person or group of persons. In the West, the Iliad, Odyssey, and the Nibelungenlied; and in the East, the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Shahnama are often cited as examples of the epic genre.

Oral epics or world folk epics

The first epics are associated strongly with preliterate societies and oral poetic traditions. In these traditions, poetry is transmitted to the audience and from performer to performer by purely oral means. World folk epics are those epics which are not just literary masterpieces but also an integral part of the world view of a people. They were originally oral literatures, which were later written down by either single author or several writers.

Studies 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 memorisation, as the poet is recalling each episode and using them to recreate the entire epic as they perform it.

Parry and Lord also showed that the most likely source for written texts of the epics of Homer was dictation from an oral performance.

Epics in literate societies

Literate societies have often copied the epic format, and the earliest known European example is Virgil's Aeneid, which follows both the style and subject matter of Homer. Other obvious examples are Tulsidas' Sri Ramacharit Manas, following the style and subject matter of Valmiki's Ramayana,. and the Persian epic Shahnama by Ferdowsi.

Classical epic conventions include:

Invocatio (pray to the muse [of the epic]), Prepositio (introduction of the epic's theme), Enumeratio (counting the fighting armys / heroes), In medias res (start from the middle of an event), Deus ex machina (interruption / miracle from a god), Anticipatio (prediction), and Ephiteton ornans (permanent attributives of the hero[es])

Notable epic poems

20th century BC: The Epic of Gilgamesh (Sumerian mythology)
19th century BC: The Ramayana (Hindu mythology)
1316 BC: Traditional date for the Mahabharata (Hindu mythology).
8th century BC:
The Iliad by Homer (Greek mythology)
The Odyssey by Homer (Greek mythology)
1st century BC:
Aeneid by Virgil
Táin Bó Cúailnge (Irish mythology)
c.3rd century: Cilappatikaram, a South Indian epic written by prince Ilango Adigal
Sometime in the period 8th to the 10th century: Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon mythology)
10th century:
Bhagavata Purana (Sanskrit "Stories of the Lord")
11th century:
Digenis Acritas (Byzantine epic poem)
La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland)
Epic of King Gesar (Tibetan; compiled in 11th century from earlier sources)
12th century: The Knight in the Panther Skin by Shota Rustaveli
13th century:
Poetic Edda (Norse mythology)
Hervarar saga (Norse mythology)
Völsunga saga (Norse mythology)
Nibelungenlied (Germanic mythology)
Brut by Layamon
c.1300: Cursor Mundi by an anonymous cleric
early 14th century: Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) by Dante Alighieri
1516: Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto
c.1555: Lusiadas by Luis de Camões
1575 La Gerusalemme liberata by Torquato Tasso
16th century:
Ramacharitmanas (based on the Ramayana) by Goswami Tulsidas
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
17th century:
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Obsidio Szigetianae ("Szigeti veszedelem"; Hungarian) by Miklós Zrínyi
19th century:
Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz
The Prelude by William Wordsworth
Don Juan by George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron
Clarel by Herman Melville
Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner
Canigó by Jacint Verdaguer
Venezuela Heroica, by Eduardo Blanco (1881)
Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot (Finnish mythology)
20th century:
Savitri by Aurobindo Ghose
The Cantos by Ezra Pound
The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis
The Anathemata by David Jones
Maximus by Charles Olson
Paterson by William Carlos Williams
The Changing Light at Sandover by James Merrill

See also


External links