Narrative poetry is poetry with a plot. The content and rhythmic nature of these poems reflect the oral practice that first started the narrative tradition. Epics and traditional ballads are the most common forms of narrative poetry, but lays and some idylls also qualify.
Every narrative poem tells a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The story either has an internal or external conflict, along with one or more characters caught up in that conflict. Some narrative poems directly describe the setting, but others do not.
Before literacy took root, storytellers needed to reconstruct tales from memory. Poetic elements — such as meter, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance — helped bards recall the words and events of multiple stories more easily than if those stories were only passed along as prose. Narrative poetry was typically chanted, giving it an entertaining quality. The subjects of these poems included both popular stories told solely for enjoyment and news concerning important events from other regions.
Epics, one of the most common types of narrative poetry, are long poems without stanzas that typically describe serious, heroic actions. Kings, demigods, warriors, and other noble figures fight for the fate of their culture, country, or world. The Odyssey, an Ancient Greek epic poem attributed to the poet Homer, tells the tale of Odysseus, a legendary king of Ithaca, as he fights to make his way back home after the Trojan War. Beowulf, an epic poem composed by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet sometime between 700 and 1000 CE, describes three battles fought by Beowulf, a hero and eventual king of the Geats.
The ballad, another type of narrative poetry, is typically shorter than the epic and slightly less serious. Most ballads can be divided into stanzas and contain repetitive frames and abrupt transitions. Ballad themes also cover a broader range of topics than epic themes, including love stories, religious lessons, and adventurous tales about folkloric heroes like Robin Hood. In modern popular music, however, the term "ballad" most often refers to a type of love song that does not tell a story and does not qualify as narrative poetry.
Lays are long, light-hearted narrative poems that were sung by minstrels and trouvères in the Middle Ages. These poems are related to the lyric poetry form, and both poetry types heavily rely on end rhymes and descriptions of feelings and personal experiences. The lyric is non-narrative in nature, though, while the lay tells a story through the use of these feelings and experiences.
An idyll can either refer to a short poem that paints a glamorized picture of rural farm life or a longer poem that tells the tale of a past hero. Whether the poet describes the life of a shepherd, a farmhand, or a military hero, an idyll that tells a story falls under the category of narrative poetry. If an idyll only describes a rural scene, however, without telling a story about a character within that scene, it is not narrative in nature.