Epic poetry

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For other meanings of epic, see Epic (disambiguation).
Tablet containing a fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh

An epic (from the Ancient Greek adjective ἐπικός (epikos), from ἔπος (epos) "word, story, poem"[1]) is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation.[2] Milman Parry and Albert Lord have argued that the Homeric epics, the earliest works of Western literature, were fundamentally an oral poetic form. These works form the basis of the epic genre in Western literature. Nearly all Western epic (including Vergil's Aeneid and Dante's Divine Comedy) self-consciously presents itself as a continuation of the tradition begun by these poems. Classical epic continues to employ dactylic hexameter and centers its plots around the theme of a journey, either physical (as typified by Odysseus in the Odyssey) or mental (as typified by Achilles in the Iliad) or both. Epics tend also to highlight cultural norms and to define or call into question cultural values, particularly as they pertain to heroism.

Another type of epic poetry is epyllion (plural: epyllia), which is a brief narrative poem with a romantic or mythological theme. The term, which means "little epic", came into use in the nineteenth century. It refers primarily to the erudite, shorter hexameter poems of the Hellenistic period and the similar works composed at Rome from the age of the neoterics; to a lesser degree, the term includes some poems of the English Renaissance, particularly those influenced by Ovid.[citation needed] The most famous example of classical epyllion is perhaps Catullus 64.

Some of the most famous examples of epic poetry include the ancient Indian Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Ancient Greek Iliad and the Odyssey, the Old English Beowulf, and the Portuguese Lusiads.[3]

Oral epics or world folk epics[edit]

The first epics were products of preliterate societies and oral poetic traditions. In these traditions, poetry is transmitted to the audience and from performer to performer by purely oral means.

Early twentieth-century study of living oral epic traditions in the Balkans by Milman Parry and Albert Lord demonstrated the paratactic model used for composing these poems. What they demonstrated was that oral epics tend to be constructed in short episodes, each of equal status, interest and importance. This facilitates memorization, as the poet is recalling each episode in turn and using the completed episodes to recreate the entire epic as he performs it. Parry and Lord also showed that the most likely source for written texts of the epics of Homer was dictation from an oral performance.

Epic: a long narrative poem in elevated style presenting characters of high position in adventures forming an organic whole through their relation to a central heroic figure and through their development of episodes important to the history of a nation or race. (Harmon and Holman)

An attempt to delineate ten main characteristics of an epic:[4]

  1. Begins in medias res.
  2. The setting is vast, covering many nations, the world or the universe.
  3. Begins with an invocation to a muse (epic invocation).
  4. Begins with a statement of the theme.
  5. Includes the use of epithets.
  6. Contains long lists, called an epic catalogue.
  7. Features long and formal speeches.
  8. Shows divine intervention on human affairs.
  9. Features heroes that embody the values of the civilization.
  10. Often features the tragic hero's descent into the Underworld or hell.

The hero generally participates in a cyclical journey or quest, faces adversaries that try to defeat him in his journey and returns home significantly transformed by his journey. The epic hero illustrates traits, performs deeds, and exemplifies certain morals that are valued by the society the epic originates from. Many epic heroes are recurring characters in the legends of their native culture.

Conventions of epics:

  1. Praepositio: Opens by stating the theme or cause of the epic. This may take the form of a purpose (as in Milton, who proposed "to justify the ways of God to men"); of a question (as in the Iliad, which Homer initiates by asking a Muse to sing of Achilles' anger); or of a situation (as in the Song of Roland, with Charlemagne in Spain).
  2. Invocation: Writer invokes a Muse, one of the nine daughters of Zeus. The poet prays to the Muses to provide him with divine inspiration to tell the story of a great hero. (This convention is obviously restricted to cultures influenced by European Classical culture. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, or the Bhagavata Purana would obviously not contain this element).
  3. In medias res: narrative opens "in the middle of things", with the hero at his lowest point. Usually flashbacks show earlier portions of the story.
  4. Enumeratio: Catalogues and genealogies are given. These long lists of objects, places, and people place the finite action of the epic within a broader, universal context. Often, the poet is also paying homage to the ancestors of audience members.
  5. Epithet: Heavy use of repetition or stock phrases: e.g., Homer's "rosy-fingered dawn" and "wine-dark sea."

Poets in literate societies have sometimes copied the epic format. The earliest surviving European examples are the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes and Virgil's Aeneid, which follow both the style and subject matter of Homer. Other obvious examples are Nonnus' Dionysiaca, Tulsidas' Sri Ramacharit Manas.

Notable epic poems[edit]

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript, 8th to 10th century.
This list can be compared with two others, national epic and list of world folk-epics.[5]

Ancient epics (to 500)[edit]

(The date of compositions of Babylonian epics is often hard to determine, as they may survive on manuscripts that are much later than the first composition. There is also the complication that they underwent successive revisions and redactions.)

The dates of origin of these Hindu epics are hard to determine, as they existed for a long time in history as oral traditions with numerous versions and also in different regions of India and South Asia.

The following poems pertaining Greek mythology were written during this period but they are known only through fragments

Medieval epics (500–1500)[edit]

Statue of Iranian poet Ferdowsi in Rome, Italy. Ferdowsi's national epic Shahnameh played an important role in revival of Iranian patriotism and the Persian language after both were systematically suppressed by the Arab occupation of Iran

.

The Knight in the Panther's Skin by Shota Rustaveli, one of the greatest Georgian poets.

Modern epics (from 1500)[edit]

Other epics[edit]


See also[edit]

  1. ^ Epic Online Etymology Dictionary
  2. ^ Michael Meyer, The Bedford Introduction to Literature (Bedford: St. Martin's, 2005), 2128. ISBN 0-312-41242-8.
  3. ^ "epic". The Columbia Encyclopedia (6 ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. 2004. 
  4. ^ Taken from William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 8th ed., Prentice Hall, 1999.
  5. ^ According to that article, world folk epics are those that are not just literary masterpieces, but also an integral part of the world view of a people, originally oral, later written down by one or several authors.
  6. ^ "The Lusiads". World Digital Library. 1800–1882. Retrieved 2013-08-31. 
  7. ^ Guerber, H. A. (1913). The Book of the Epic. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott. p. 465. "a work some authorities rank as the first American epic" 
  8. ^ a b Stephen Greenblatt et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume D, 9th edition (Norton, 2012)

Bibliography[edit]