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A mock epic poem is a piece written in an epic style about a topic that normally would not warrant such a grandiose treatment. Mock epic poetry is a subsection of the larger satirical heroic style, which can be used for anything from novels to comic books. Essentially, the mechanism that makes this type of poem funny is the contrast between the storytelling style and the subject of the poem. It is possible to write a mock epic poem about people, events, or even concepts in some cases. Some examples of this type of poem may lose their satirical meaning to future readers if the original references are lost, resulting in stories that can be read as simple absurd tales.
The form of the mock epic poem varies depending on genre, but most poems of this type draw from stylistic conventions associated with classical literature. Rhyming poems are common, but these are almost always modeled after older poems. While some poems are written to call up images of Greek classics, others imitate traditional English poetry. The same concept could be applied to non-Western poetic traditions as well, though this is much less common.
Topics addressed in a mock epic poem vary greatly, but it is particularly common to write this type of poem about a person. Don Juan by Lord Byron and Mac Flecknoe by John Dryden are two examples of this strategy. It is also possible to write this type of poem about an event, as is the case in Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock. Many poems of this type follow the trajectory of a Greek classic directly, mirroring actual events in those epic poems.
One of the most interesting features of the mock epic poem is that it depends in part on the classics for meaning. A reader who knows Virgil's Aeneid, for example, is better equipped to understand Dryden's Mac Flecknoe in all its nuanced references. This is not because the poems themselves are unintelligible without these references, but rather because the comparison is not pointed out directly. Satire through comparison depends on knowing the items being compared in order to be understood as humorous, and the reference in these cases is hidden in the style and form of the poetry.
Sometimes, a mock epic poem actually includes the word "parody" or "satire" in its title. In other cases, it is up to the reader to determine how the poem is meant to be taken. Many years of scholarship on this topic have identified poems that were written satirically, but most authors were upfront about the mocking nature of their poems.
And there are even modern examples. If "The Saga Begins" by Weird Al Yankovic (parody of "American Pie") isn't a mock epic, I don't know what is. It has all the elements of an epic, and it manages to be hilarious at the same time.
One might even say "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen is something of a mock epic. Or "A Quick One While He's Away" by The Who could be a micro rock opera, or a mock epic. It's a matter of perspective, I guess, but these all strike me as poking more than a little fun at the genre.
"Don Juan" cracks me up. "Let not a monument give you or me hopes, for not one pinch of dust remains of Cheops." Who would have thought they were so funny in the Romantic period? But that's just Lord Byron up one side and down the other.
That's one of his great attractions -- his irreverence. He was the original bad boy and wasn't afraid to make fun of a serious art form. "Don Juan" is a heck of a lot more entertaining to read than "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," which is a dead bore. Yes, I know -- it's great literature. I have a degree in English and I love poetry. Mock epics are one of my favorite forms.
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