When the word “poetry” is mentioned what typically comes to people’s minds are those pieces of literature that resemble and sound like song lyrics. To others, what they commonly picture is the complex language of Shakespeare’s sonnets. What these poems have in common is that they are short pieces of figurative literature that explore a central theme or emotion through the perspective of a persona. Lyric poetry and sonnets are the faces of poetry. They are so familiar to everyone that most of us often forget that aside from expressing themes, scenery, and emotions, poetry can also tell stories. This kind of poetry is called Narrative Poetry.
Roots of Narrative Poetry
Narrative poetry finds its origin in ancient civilisations. Before the time of televisions or even before the first book was printed, people found ways to entertain themselves through stories. These stories are told around campfires and are often sung by a village priest or an elder. Most of the time, the stories are so long that the storytellers need to chop up the narrative which is why most narrative poetry are composed of multiple small chunks or episodes. That is why for bards and elders to remember the poems easily, narrative poetry often uses creative language such as alliteration and kennings.
Types of Narrative Poetry
- The Epic – This type is the most well-known among all the kinds of poetry, and most of them are a heritage of ancient civilisations carried down to the present time. These poems tell the characteristics, rise and fall, and adventures of a hero.
- Idyll – You can remember this type as it sounds like “ideal” which is precisely what it is all about. These are narrative poems that talk about a country’s golden age and the past heroes that they idolise.
- Ballads – They are commonly associated with lyric poetry, but some folk tales are told in the style of ballads where a stanza, better known as a refrain, is repeated throughout the poem.
- Lays – These are poem sung by medieval court performers. They are narrative in nature because they are often about important historical facts or about the news of the day.
Famous Examples of Narrative Poetry
- Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey – These two epic poems tell the stories of the Greek heroes of the Trojan War: their heroic feats and deaths and how those still alive after the war eventually found their way home again.
- Beowulf – This narrative poem is known as the oldest poem in English literature, and it has no known author. It narrates the story of Beowulf as he defeats evil monsters and gains honour and fame for himself.
- Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales – Unlike the epics previously mentioned, Chaucer’s work is actually a collection of 24 stories set in Medieval England. The stories are told by characters on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury.
- Dante’s The Divine Comedy – An Italian masterpiece, it is composed of three books: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. It tells the journey of Dante, the pilgrim, as he travels through the three realms of the Christian afterlife.
- Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven – This poem is a piece of American Gothic literature inspired by the author’s mystifying experiences in dealing with his beloved wife’s untimely death.