Epic is a long, often book-length, narrative in verse form that retells the heroic journey of a single person, or group of persons.
History of the Epic Form
The word "epic" comes from Latin epicus and from Greek epikos, meaning "a word; a story; poetry in heroic verse." The elements that typically distinguish epics include superhuman deeds, fabulous adventures, highly stylized language, and a blending of lyrical and dramatic traditions, which also extend to defining heroic verse.
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. Some epics of note include Beowulf, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, John 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 poem with the canto. Examples such as The Cantos by Ezra Pound, Maximus by Charles Olson, The Anniad by Gwendolyn Brooks, The 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.