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Types of Narrative Poetry

Narrative poems are poems that tell stories. As such, it should come as no surprise to learn that these poems come in a wide range of forms with a wide range of rules. For example, some narrative poems rhyme, whereas other narrative poems have no such requirement. Likewise, some narrative poems are entire novels rendered in verse, whereas other narrative poems are closer in length to short stories. Having said that, certain forms of narrative poems have seen more use than others, so let's look into those forms.

4 Popular Types of Narrative Poetry

Ballad

Ballads are narrative poems that have been set to music. Their roots can be traced to the French ballade, which was one of the most famous poetic forms in 14th and 15th century France. However, it is important to note that the ballad has expanded beyond its origin. It has become popular throughout Europe, North America, South America, Australia, and North Africa.

There is no universal structure for ballads, which is not surprising when a poetic form is used in a wide range of countries with a wide range of languages. Still, some styles see more use than others. One popular example is the ABABBCBC pattern which uses rhyming couplets with 14 syllables each. While another popular example would be an ABAB or ABCB pattern that uses alternating lines of 8 syllables and six syllables. Poets should know that a ballad can also be used to refer to any slow-paced love song, particularly in the context of either pop or rock music.

Ballad Example

Bridal Ballad - written by Edgar Allan Poe 

The ring is on my hand, 
And the wreath is on my brow; 
Satin and jewels grand 
Are all at my command, 
And I am happy now.
 
And my lord he loves me well; 
But, when first he breathed his vow, 
I felt my bosom swell- 
For the words rang as a knell, 
And the voice seemed his who fell 
In the battle down the dell, 
And who is happy now.

But he spoke to re-assure me, 
And he kissed my pallid brow, 
While a reverie came o'er me, 
And to the church-yard bore me, 
And I sighed to him before me, 
Thinking him dead D'Elormie, 
"Oh, I am happy now!" 

And thus the words were spoken, 
And this the plighted vow, 
And, though my faith be broken, 
And, though my heart be broken, 
Here is a ring, as token 
That I am happy now! 

Would God I could awaken! 
For I dream I know not how! 
And my soul is sorely shaken 
Lest an evil step be taken,- 
Lest the dead who is forsaken 
May not be happy now.

Epic

Epic poems are narrative poems of extreme length. Generally speaking, epic poems are focused on the extraordinary feats of extraordinary figures from the distant past, which can be either historical, legendary, or even mythological. Often-times, epic poems have had a profound impact on how their listeners perceived themselves as a people. For an excellent example, consider the case of the Aeneid, which is a Latin epic poem written by Virgil. It turned a loose collection of stories centered on the Trojan hero Aeneas into a coherent founding myth for Rome. This story proclaimed its manifest destiny to rule over the Mediterranean world. The Aeneid also served to legitimize the rule of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that presided over Imperial Rome.

Regardless, epic poems don't have a universal structure any more than ballads do. A lot of epic poems draw either direct or indirect inspiration from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. That is because those are two of the most famous works in the western canon. They have had a huge influence on both the Greco-Roman world and its successors. There are plenty of epic poems, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Mahabharata, that have either no or next to no connection with Homer's works. Still, these poems are recognized as members of the poetic form in their own right.

Example

[Excerpt] The Epic of the Lion - written by Victor Hugo 

A Lion in his jaws caught up a child— 
Not harming it—and to the woodland, wild 
With secret streams and lairs, bore off his prey— 
The beast, as one might cull a bud in May. 
It was a rosy boy, a king's own pride, 
A ten-year lad, with bright eyes shining wide, 
And save this son his majesty beside 
Had but one girl, two years of age, and so 
The monarch suffered, being old, much woe; 
His heir the monster's prey, while the whole land 
In dread both of the beast and king did stand; 
Sore terrified were all. 

Idyll

Idylls are based on the short pastoral poems of an ancient Greek poet named Theocritus, who is considered to be the one who came up with ancient Greek bucolic poetry. Unlike Homer's epic poems, Theocritus' poems focused on small happenings in small settings that can be summed up as scenes from day-to-day life. Today, any short poem focused on rural life or pastoral life can be called an idyll whether it was written by an ancient Roman or someone from a recent century.

Example

Idyll - Written by Siegfried Sassoon

In the grey summer garden I shall find you 
With day-break and the morning hills behind you.
 
There will be rain-wet roses; stir of wings; 
And down the wood a thrush that wakes and sings.
 
Not from the past you’ll come, but from that deep
Where beauty murmurs to the soul asleep: 
And I shall know the sense of life re-born 
From dreams into the mystery of morn 
Where gloom and brightness meet.
 And standing there 
Till that calm song is done, at last we’ll share
The league-spread, quiring symphonies that are 
Joy in the world, and peace, and dawn’s one star.

Lay

Lay is a term that can refer to more than one kind of narrative poem. For example, a narrative lay is a short rhyming poem that tells a tale of romance mixed in with chivalry. Often-times, these poems will have supernatural Celtic motifs, which is perhaps unsurprising when narrative lays are also called Breton lays. Meanwhile, a lyric lay is also focused on romance mixed in with chivalry. However, lyric lays stand apart in that they consist of octosyllabic couplets that are sorted into a number of stanzas with different forms to them.

Example

[Excerpt] A Lay Made About the Year Of The City CCCLX  written by Horace

              II

     East and west and south and north
          The messengers ride fast,
     And tower and town and cottage
          Have heard the trumpet's blast.
     Shame on the false Etruscan
          Who lingers in his home,
     When Porsena of Clusium
          Is on the march for Rome.

               III

     The horsemen and the footmen
          Are pouring in amain
     From many a stately market-place,
          From many a fruitful plain,
     From many a lonely hamlet,
          Which, hid by beech and pine,
     Like an eagle's nest, hangs on the crest
          Of purple Apennine;

What is the Origin of Narrative Poetry?

Narrative poems are ancient and can trace their origins to the oral tradition, which has faded over centuries. However, they were once the most important method by which one generation could transmit cultural material to the next. In fact, some of the most famous narrative poems are believed to have started out in oral tradition before being transferred to either paper or some other medium for writing. Moreover, it is a common line of speculation that some of the distinguishing features of the verse used for these narrative poems were meant to make it easier for storytellers to remember relevant material.