An epic poem is a long narrative poem documenting the exploits of a hero in relation to the beliefs and culture of his or her society. An epic poem serves as a tool to summarize, express, and preserve the ideals and mythical and historical traditions of a nation during a critical period of its history.
Epic poetry always deals with persons and events that are considered to be historically real by the poet and the poet’s audience. The emphasis of an epic poem is national rather than individual in that the quest of the hero serves to gratify a sense of national pride.
For a poem to be considered an epic poem it must contain certain elements. An epic poem is written in a long narrative form that differs from a narrative poem in terms of scale. Epic poems are written in a high style that avoids popular meter and verse patterns and makes wide use of similes. The heroes in epic poems are always gods or goddesses, or extraordinary men or women of great national or cosmic significance. The heroes are able to undertake superhuman deeds involving some sort of conflict or battle. There should also be a main antagonist who is often supernatural as well as various mythical, human, or animal helpers.
The epic poem usually begins with the announcement of the subject or quest that is undertaken. This is followed by an invocation of the Muse by the hero seeking guidance or instruction. The action begins in media res, a literary device in which the narrative starts in the middle of the story instead of from the beginning. The characters, setting, and conflict are then introduced through a series of flashbacks. The hero then begins to make catalogs of warriors, ships, and armies. This is usually followed by formal speeches, a journey to the underworld, and a battle in which the hero usually uses a weapon of supernatural origin. All the while the hero is making use of the epic simile which differs from a regular simile in that is is more elaborate and more ornate.
Epic poems can be divided into 2 classes: oral epic poetry and literary epic poetry. Oral epic poems are the product of preliterate societies and their oral poetic traditions. They were orally designed with specific details and sounds to capture the audience’s attention. Oral epic poems were usually written down after centuries of oral transmission. The first recorded early epic poem is the Sumerian Gilgamesh. Other well known examples of oral epic poetry include Beowulf and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Literary epic poems are literary poems written in imitation of oral epic poems. Writing a literary epic poem requires considerable research and knowledge about the form and style of oral epic poetry. Some well known examples of literary epic poems include Virgil’s Aeneid and Milton’s Paradise Lost.