An epic is a long, often book-length, narrative in verse form that retells the heroic journey of a single person or a group of persons. Elements that typically distinguish epics include superhuman deeds, fabulous adventures, highly stylized language, and a blending of lyrical and dramatic traditions.

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History of the Epic Form

Many of the world’s oldest written narratives are in epic form, including the Babylonian Gilgamesh, the Sanskrit Mahâbhârata, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid. Both of Homer’s epics are composed in dactylic hexameter, which became the standard for Greek and Latin oral poetry. Homeric verse is characterized by the use of extended similes and formulaic phrases, such as epithets, to fill out the verse form. Greek and Latin epics frequently open with an invocation to the muse, as is shown in the opening lines of The Odyssey.

Over time, the epic has evolved to fit changing languages, traditions, and beliefs. Poets such as Lord Byron and Alexander Pope used the epic for comic effect in Don Juan and The Rape of the Lock. Other epics of note include Beowulf, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Dante’s Divine ComedyJohn Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh. The epic has also been used to formalize mythological traditions in many cultures, such as the Norse mythology in Edda and Germanic mythology in Nibelungenlied, and more recently, the Finnish mythology of Elias Lönnrot’s Kalevala.

In the twentieth century and beyond, poets expanded the epic genre further with a renewed interest in the long poems. The Cantos by Ezra Pound, Maximus by Charles OlsonThe Anniad by Gwendolyn BrooksThe Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You by Frank Stanford, The Iovis Trilogy by Anne Waldman, and Paterson by William Carlos Williams all push and pull at the boundaries of the genre, re-envisioning the epic through the lens of modernism.

From A Poet’s Glossary

The following additional definition of the term epic is reprinted from A Poets Glossary by Edward Hirsch.

A long narrative poem, exalted in style, heroic in theme. The earliest epics all focus on the legendary adventures of a hero against the backdrop of a historical event: think of the Trojan War and Odysseus’s action-packed journey home in the eighth century BC Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, the models for epic poetry ever since; or the territorial battles of a warrior culture in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, dated between the eighth and eleventh centuries; or the preservation of a city and a civilization in the Babylonian Gilgamesh (ca. 1600–1000 BC). These epics seem to be the written versions of texts long sung and retold, composed and recomposed by many epic singers over time, all telling the tale of a tribe.

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