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Poetry Guide: Narrative Poetry

Narrative poetry is poetry that tells a story. In its broadest sense, it includes epic poetry; some would reserve the name narrative poetry for works on a smaller scale and generally with more direct appeal to human interest than the epic.

Narrative poetry is among the oldest, and perhaps the oldest, genre of poetry. Many scholars of Homer, from Quintus Smyrnaeus forward, have concluded that his tales of the Iliad and Odyssey were composed from compilations of shorter narrative poems that related individual episodes, and which were more suitable for an evening's entertainment. Much of narrative poetry is performance poetry and has its source in an oral tradition: the Scots and English ballads, the tales of Robin Hood, of Iskandar, and various Baltic and Slavic heroic poems all were originally intended for recitation, rather than reading. In many cultures, there remains a lively tradition of the recitation of traditional tales in verse form. Some have speculated that some of the distinctive features that distinguish poetry from prose, such as metre, alliteration, and kennings, at one time served as memory aids that allowed the bards who recited traditional tales to reconstruct them from memory.

Some narrative poetry takes the form of a novel in verse. An example of this is The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning. In terms of narrative poetry, a romance is a narrative poem that tells a story of chivalry. Examples include the Romance of the Rose or Tennyson 's Idylls of the King. Although these examples use medieval and Arthurian materials, romances may also tell stories from classical mythology.

Shorter narrative poems are often similar in style to the short story. Sometimes, these short narratives are collected into interrelated groups, as with Chaucer 's Canterbury Tales .

The most popular form of narrative poetry is probably the ballad. Originally intended to be sung while dancing, ballads have enjoyed a revival since the 1950s as part of the general revival of interest in folk music. The broadsheet ballad was a form of narrative poetry that took the form of the folk ballad and recast it in printed form. These often related an event of interest such as a crime, and were used to spread the news of that event. They often added moralistic, comic, or other editorial comments to the events they narrated. The broadsheet ballad is associated with England from the introduction of printing to the invention of the first newspapers.

Noteworthy narrative poems

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