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What Is Epic Poetry?

Beowulf is one of the most famous epic poems.
Spain's epic Poem of the Cid reflects the culture's highest values.
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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Images By: Robert, Taylor Morris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2014
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Epic poetry is poetry that has a broad theme, a broad setting, substantial length, and various other characteristics that make it seem “larger than life” when compared to other literary works. Some who are experienced with this type of work would refer to epic types of poetry as “gothic” in the sense that both of these words indicate a grandiosity of style. The word epic, much like the word epistolic, which refers to the writing of a letter, comes from the Greek word for “writing” or “written word/story.”

Linguistic and literary experts can identify some basic categories of epic poetry. One of these is epic poems that are attributed to a specific author. The other is not linked to a specific author, but developed within a society over time.

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In looking at the latter form of epic poetry, experts can identify epics that pre-literate societies generated through oral or verbal tradition. Some of the major examples of this form of epic poetry attempt to explain a cosmology or identify various gods or deities. Another type, which has a more specific origin, can still be seen as epic poetry that originated within a general societal context. For example, the epic poem Parsifal, attributed to Chretien de Troyes, can be seen as an attempt to reveal a broad set of ideas related to the birth of what we now call Western civilization. Another epic that is commonly studied in the context of cultural evolution in English is the epic Beowulf, written in Old English.

Other epic poems have well-identified authors. Some of these are studied in many universities and schools around the world. Two common examples are those of Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Some literary authorities have developed a set of usual characteristics of epic poems. Besides the length and breadth of setting and scope, epic poetry also often involves defined heroes or antiheroes, contains long monologues, and features long lists of characters or other elements of the poem. To take the example of Paradise lost, the inclusion of extremely long lists of spiritual entities, as well as the developed characters, exemplifies the type of writing common in epic poems, although this popular epic may not have the same development of hero or antagonist, for example, as Beowulf, Parsifal, or some other epics related to gods or immortals.

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