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 of Western epic (including Virgil's Aeneid and Dante's Divine Comedy) self-consciously presents itself as a continuation of the tradition begun by these poems. Classical epic poetry employs a meter called dactylic hexameter and recounts a journey, either physical (as typified by Odysseus in the Odyssey) or mental (as typified by Achilles in the Iliad) or both. Epics also tend 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. The most famous example of classical epyllion is perhaps Catullus 64.
Some of the most famous examples of epic poetry include the Ancient Greek Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, the ancient Indian Mahabharata, the Old English Beowulf, Dante's Divine Comedy, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, John Milton's Paradise Lost, Camões' Os Lusíadas, the French Song of Roland, the Finnish Kalevala, and the German Nibelungenlied.
The English "epos" is likewise from the Latin epos, from Greek ἔπος, epos
Oral epics or world folk epicsEdit
The first epics were products of preliterate societies and oral history 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 contend that the most likely source for written texts of the epics of Homer was dictation from an oral performance.
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.
Composition and conventionsEdit
In A Handbook to Literature (1999), Harmon and Holman define an epic:
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:
- Begins in medias res.
- The setting is vast, covering many nations, the world or the universe.
- Begins with an invocation to a muse (epic invocation).
- Begins with a statement of the theme.
- Includes the use of epithets.
- Contains long lists, called an epic catalogue.
- Features long and formal speeches.
- Shows divine intervention on human affairs.
- Features heroes that embody the values of the civilization.
- 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:
- Preposition: 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).
- 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 restricted to cultures influenced by European Classical culture. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, or the Bhagavata Purana do not contain this element.)
- 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.
- 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.
- Epithet: Heavy use of repetition or stock phrases: e.g., Homer's "rosy-fingered dawn" and "wine-dark sea".
Many verse forms have been used in epic poems through the ages, but each language's literature typically gravitates to one form, or at least to a very limited set. Ancient Greek and Latin poems were written in dactylic hexameter. Old English, German and Norse poems were written in alliterative verse, usually without rhyme. Italian, Spanish and Portuguese long poems were usually written in terza rima  or especially ottava rima. From the 14th century English epic poems were written in heroic couplets, and rhyme royal, though in the 16th century the Spenserian stanza and blank verse were also introduced. The French alexandrine is currently the heroic line in French literature, though in earlier periods the decasyllable took precedence. In Polish literature, couplets of Polish alexandrines (syllabic lines of 7+6 syllables) prevail. In Russian, iambic tetrameter verse is the most popular. In Serbian poetry, the decasyllable is the only form employed.
- List of epic poems
- Arabic epic literature
- Calliope (Greek muse of epic poetry)
- Chanson de geste
- Duma (Ukrainian epic)
- Epic fiction
- Hebrew and Jewish epic poetry
- Indian epic poetry
- Mock epic
- National epic
- Serbian epic poetry
- List of world folk-epics
- Michael Meyer, The Bedford Introduction to Literature (Bedford: St. Martin's, 2005), 2128. ISBN 0-312-41242-8.
- "epic". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Epic Online Etymology Dictionary
- "epos". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- "epopee". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Aristotle: Poetics, translated with an introduction and notes by M. Heath, (Penguin) London 1996
- Taken from William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 8th ed., Prentice Hall, 1999.
- Hexameter, poetry at Encyclopædia Britannica.
- Alliterative verse literature at Encyclopædia Britannica.
- Terza rima, poetic form at Encyclopædia Britannica.
- Ottava rima, poetic form at Encyclopædia Britannica.
- Heroic couplet, poetry at Encyclopædia Britannica.
- Rhyme royal, poetic form at Encyclopædia Britannica.
- Spenserian stanza, poetic form at Encyclopædia Britannica.
- Blank verse, poetic form at Encyclopædia Britannica.
- See: Trzynastozgłoskowiec, [in:] Wiktor Jarosław Darasz, Mały przewodnik po wierszu polskim, Kraków 2003 (in Polish).
- [Alexandra Smith, Montaging Pushkin: Pushkin and Visions of Modernity in Russian Twentieth Century Poetry, p. 184.]
- Meyer, Early Tahitian Poetics.
- Robert William Seton-Watson, The Spirit of the Serb.
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- Jan de Vries: Heroic Song and Heroic Legend ISBN 0-405-10566-5.
- Hashmi, Alamgir (2011). "Eponymous Écriture and the Poetics of Reading a Transnational Epic". Dublin Quarterly, 15.
- Cornel Heinsdorff: Christus, Nikodemus und die Samaritanerin bei Juvencus. Mit einem Anhang zur lateinischen Evangelienvorlage, Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte 67, Berlin/New York 2003, ISBN 3-11-017851-6.
- Jansen, Jan and J Henk M.J. Maier, eds. 2004. Epic Adventures: Heroic Narrative in the Oral Performance Traditions of Four Continents (Literatur: Forschung und Wissenschaft, 3.) LIT Verlag.
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