What is an epic poem

Epic Poem Definition

The word “epic’ derived from Greek ‘epikos’ (meaning a narrative poem) brings to our mind’s eye the images of something big magnificent and larger than life.

Forms of Poetry Epic Poem
Epic Poem meaningNarrative poem
Examples Paradise Lost

Joseph T. Shipley explains it as follows “An epic is a narrative poem large in effect, in the character, the events, the setting. The epic scale of transcending at every point that of ordinary life.” The natural and usual setting for an epic is a time commonly thought of as marked by the greatness of achievement: “There were giants in those days.”

Thus, many definitions and explanations have been advanced but all would agree that an epic is a long narrative poem written in an elevated style celebrating the exploits of a hero who has a national significance.

The action of the epic is built on a vast scale. The epic hero is more than human for his fate and the fate of his nation are the concerns of the gods and Heaven interferes in his affairs by means of divine agents either minor gods or angels who are referred to as epic machinery.


Each epic in essence stresses the impact of the chance of destiny or fate and therefore admits the role of the supernatural powers.

Its action is on a very broad scale, often involving battles between nations fought over a prolonged period of time. Ultimately each epic imparts a moral lesson, which is largely implicit in the main action of the narrative.

Main Features and Conventions of the Epic:

It is often observed that “Epic in Homer and Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey‘ represent the perfection of the epic form.” Homer had fixed the form of the epic for all times to come universally acknowledged as the finest and prime model of epic n masterworks ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ is hailed as the greatest creation ancient Greece and among the greatest of western literature.

Virgil followed his example and modelled half of his ‘Aeneid on the “Iliad‘ and the half on the ‘Odyssey’. Virgil’s work was the finest epic of the ancient and one of the best creations of world literature.

Dante’s “The D: Comedy’ was partly influenced by Homer and partly by Virgil who Milton penned his ‘Paradise Lost’ he also went back to the Homeric on Virgilian epics to be in conformity with the epic tradition.

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The other poets in the West also followed the examples of Homer and Virgil not only in the general plan of the epic but also in various matters of detail such as the following: 

  • Epics are the faithful records of the times and they dramatize a whole era in the history of civilization. The composers of epic evince a fine awareness of historical perception. They are thrilled to the excitement of the heroic days in which they live and faithfully and sincerely record that for the benefit of posterity. They aim at a full synthesis of the cherished values of their race. 
  • Epics do not deal with comic or idyllic matters. The Epic-writers always deal with grand subjects and eternal human problems. They select large national or cosmic subjects of supernatural interests. 
  • Epics are dominated by men of heroic qualities who are always eager to perform great and difficult deeds. The “Iliad’ tells the story of Achilles who goes too far in the epic for individual’s pride and courage. The central figure of ‘Odyssey’i.e., Odysseus is a true hero whose chief exploits are no longer on the field of battle but among magicians, monsters and domestic enemies. ‘Aeneid’ narrates the story of Aeneas, who was one of the greatest heroes of the Trojan legend—a monolithic hero, a man of destiny. “The Divine Comedy’ is a personal epic which shows Dante’s own struggle to overcome darkness and pass through Hell, purgatory and Paradise. In Paradise Lost’ the focus shifts from Satan through man to u Messiah—all three equally central to the work. 
  • The action of the Epic is often controlled by supernatural agents. To signify the part played by deities, angels, demons etc. in an epic and “machinery’ has been invented by the critics. The gods play a large part in “Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ and in all other epics also for that manner. Events the epics are constantly open to Olympian intervention and control. 
  • The epic-poets, in search of divine inspiration invoke gods in or to fulfil their desired tasks. Homer appeals to the Muse for the successful completion of the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’. In ‘Aeneid’ Virgil prays to me of poetry for divine inspiration in order to tell his tale of the bloody in which all Italy will participate properly. In ‘Divine Comedy the invocation appears in the second Canto, not associated with the nine muses of the classical mythology but she is the holy spirit, the voice of the God. 
  • In an epic the theme of the poem is stated in the first few lines. It is technically called the ‘proposition’. In “Iliad’ the theme of Fate and Achilles’ wrath is stated to be the centre of the plot. In ‘Paradise Lost’ man’s first act of disobedience is the theme and the centre of plot is clearly stated to be the temptation of Eve by the infernal snake. 
  • Warfare is usually central to the epic mode of life. We find in these poems battles drawn forth to combat on velvet plains, mustering of troops, duels, and the like. In this respect they all follow the models provided by Homer and Virgil. “Paradise Lost describes the events subsequent to the battle in heaven between Satan’s hosts and the Almighty’s fellows. The clash of swords, the battle cries, the thrilling vicissitudes of war and the subsequent destruction find noble expression in all the epics. Detailed description of the weapons and armour of the heroes preparing for or fighting in the wars and of the rituals performed by them before the battles add to the excitement and thrill of the story. 
  • The narrative of an epic poem starts in ‘medias res’ i.e., “in the middle of the things”. Instead of starting the narration from the very beginning, the epic writer begins his story at a critical point in action. ‘Paradise Lost’ for example, opens with the description of the fallen angels in hell with Satan gathering his forces and delcaring his intention of taking revenge. The events in Heaven which led to this fall are related to Adam by the angel Raphael as late as in Books V-VIII. 
  • The abduction and imprisonment motifs are similarly potent tools in the hands of the epic poet. The abduction of Helen, the imprisonment of Odysseus for a time in Calypso island home may be cited as examples to prove the point. Likewise, the organization of games is also a frequent motif in these poems. Achilles organizes games in honour of the dead Patroclus, his bosom friend; Aeneas commemorates his father’s anniversary by games in which his Trojan followers and the Sicilians participate. The elaborate descriptions of various kinds of race e.g. Virgil’s picture of the boat race and of the rich prizes awarded to the winners are glamorous pieces of embroidery. 
  • Games provide physical exhilaration and for intellectual stimulation, epic writers describe long and learned debates and sessions of the councils of war. The ‘Iliad’ opens with an arresting debate, the fallen angels in Paradise Lost and the fugitive Titans in Keats ‘Hyperion’ deliberate the pros and cons of continuing the war against their respe, enemies. 

Structure of Epics :

The Epic is related on huge canvas characters are colossal and the events monumental. The material of an en is so obviously unwieldy that it becomes absolutely essential that it should be set forth in a form that will make the most of the subject and make it significant.

“The epic poets’ says Iyengar, “have their own ‘tricks of the trade’ by means of which they are able within a short compass to produce an impression at once of unity and complexity of concentration and amplitude.”

Aristotle has uttered some wise things about the construction of an epic. With his usual insistence on form, Aristotle asserts that the action of the epic must be single and entire with a beginning a middle and an end.

All those epics that try to portray not one by many actions e.g. “The Faerie Queen’ by Spenser or ‘Idylls of the King’ by Tennyson, go against this canon of Aristotle’s and fail as epics. All the great epic poets try to impart unity to their epics by concentrating on just one selected and entire action.

They make all other actions, strictly ancillary to the main action. The practice of starting the narration in the middle of the things at a critical point in the action is also a device adopted by the Epic-poets to achieve the goal of unity.

They also divided their works into books, usually twelve in number. “Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’, however, have twenty-four books each. The reduced number was first found in Virgil and was later adopted by later European writers.

Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queen’ never got completed but originally it was supposed to have twelve books. “Paradise Lost’ was raised to number twelve from the original ten. 

Metre, Language and Style:

The style of an epic is deliberately distanced from ordinary speech and proportioned to the grandeur and formality of the heroic subject matter and epic architecture. The supreme epics have great stories to tell.

An epic poem is a ceremonial performance and is narrated in a ceremonial style in a language that insinuates its meaning into the hearts of the readers. The epic poets employ many conventional poetic devices such as the Homeric Epithet or Homeric Simile.

The former is a term or phrase, sometimes quite lengthy applied again and again to a particular person and Homeric Similes or Epic Similes are as Lemon says, “Elaborate point-by-point comparisons made explicitly and al length, giving an impression of magnificence.” Such similes become in a sense descriptive poems and often seem to be decorative rather than functional 

The form of the epic is frequently enriched by a dash of colour and this too is in the authentic epic tradition.

Homer’s description of the armour fashioned by Hephaestos in Book XVII of the ‘Iliad’ is the best example of this. The other examples are Milton’s description of Paradise and Adam and Eve in Book IV of Paradise Lost and Keats’ sensuous evocation atmosphere of Delos in Book II of ‘Hyperion’.

Such description masterpieces of verbal embroidery and they impart a glow of colour epic narratives. Besides that, the stringing together of a long list of sonorous proper names for artistic purposes has also become the standard of epic style. 

Moral Purpose:

The moral purpose is not prominent in the early epic. Homer and Virgil go little beyond making an appeal to patriotism and national pride.

It was Italian poet Tasso who introduced the moral and didactic elements into his ‘Jerusalem Delivered which was completed in the year 1574. In his ‘Faerie Queen Spenser explicitly declares his avowed intention “to fashion a Gentleman in virtuous and gentle discipline” and the purpose of Milton in Paradise Lost was to justify the ways of God to man.

To quote Iyengar again— “Neither love your life nor hate it, but what thou livest Live well—this summarizes the epic code of ethics and one wonders whether the modern world has any better code to offer to suffering humanity.” 

Authentic and Literary Epics:

An epic is either a result of natural growth or conscious literary art. There have been some epic writers who with their superlative genius, have simply transformed the long-existing matter of the legends contained in innumerable ballads into monumental works of art with the due alignment of parts and universality of appeal.

These epics, before being formulated into an artistic whole existed in fragments for long ages. These fragments were collected together by some poets, known or unknown and given the shape they have had ever since.

These epics are variously called the folk-epics, Epics of Growth communal epics or Authentic epics. Homer’s ‘Iliad’ for example is supposed to have been composed of the fragments already ancient in his times.

A literary epic, on the contrary, is a work of art already planned in an epic manner in imitation of the original prototype. “These modern epics are for all practical purposes but new wine in old bottles.”—(Iyengar).

The names given to such epics are literary epics or Epic of Art or Artistic Epic or Epic of Culture. Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered’, ‘Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queen’ Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, Comoens ‘Lusiad’ etc. are all examples of such types of epics.

These are the products of some individual genius who felt in themselves the power to rival the masters of old. 

In modern times the epic-writing seems to have gone out of favour. In the Victorian Age Hardy designed his epic drama ‘The Dynasty’ (which deals with Napoleonic wars) on a grand scale but his attitude and treatment had almost nothing similar to the great epic-writers.

Epics today have almost ceased to exist but we still cherish the old ones. These epics hold the key to our racial culture and character. They are prints of crucial segments in the destiny of the human race.

Their universal ethical codes enable us to face life’s battle and explore its myriad magnificence better. They are works of everlasting significance and popularity. 

Non-European Epics:

The above-described qualities are manifested not only in the European Epics but also in the ones penned in other parts of the world. Towards the end of the 3rd Millenium B. C. the Accadian epic ‘Gilgamesh’ was composed.

About half of its 3000 lines are extant today. A little later came the ‘Enuma Elish’. Almost all of its 1000 lines are available. Even earlier Sumerian epic tales also narrated the heroic deeds of Gilgamesh with the usual trip to the nether world and battles of gods and heroes.

Much later came the two great epics of India “The Ramayana’ and “The Mahabharata’. Besides these, there are also the ‘Puranas’ the minor Sanskrit epics and the epics composed by the great poet Kalidas ‘Kumarasambhavam’, ‘Raghuvansam’ etc. and many others in different languages of India.

In their mingling of myth, legend and history and their building of minor events to heroic proportions the Eastern epics-whether of personal romance and battle of heroes and gods, of creation of myths and religion, or of more didactic end—resemble these of the western world. (Shipley).

The only difference between the Indian epics and the European one seems to be that the Indian epics are considerably longer but this is because they “try to comprehend more, to accumulate a more immense variety of action and character, and to cover (in the ‘Ramayana’) longer epochs of time than is attempted by Homer and Virgil.

The difference between an epic like the ‘Iliad’ and one like the ‘Ramayana’ is similar to the difference between a classical tragedy like Racine’s Phedre’ and a Shakespearean tragedy like ‘King Lear’. Both preserve the unity of action but in the latter unity is reared on a background of complexity.” (Iyengar) 

Who composed the famous epic poem The Faerie Queene ?

u003cemu003eIt was Edmund Spenser who wrote the well-known epic poem Faerie Queene.u003c/emu003e

In which epic poem Archimago, Arcasia, Guyon, and Artegal are characters?

They are characters in The Faerie Queene.

How many lines does the Old English Epic poem Beowulf include?

The Old English Epic poem Beowulf comprises 3,182 alliterative lines.

When the first version of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost was first published?

The first version of Paradise Lost was published in 1667.

Who wrote the epic poem ‘Omeros’ and when it was first published ?

Derek Walcott wrote the epic poem ‘Omeros’ and it was first published in 1990.