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Narrative Poetry

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English Literature

Have you ever encountered a poem that told a whole story? This kind of poem is known as narrative poetry. Read on to learn more about it.

What is narrative poetry in literature?

Narrative poetry is poetry that tells a story. Just like the typical structure of a story, it usually has a beginning, middle, and end, but narrative poetry can have an unpredictable structure. Narrative poetry usually has one narrator who chronicles the events.

Narrative Poetry. Surreal image of a huge book, wide open in the middle of greenery. StudySmarter.Surreal image of a book, Pixabay.

The history of narrative poetry

Narrative poetry has its origins in oral traditions. These tales were recounted and passed down orally through memory. Narrative poems were often orally created and shared before they were documented in written language. People used poetic devices such as rhyme and repetition to make memorisation easier.

Characteristics of narrative poetry

Since narrative poetry closely follows the typical structure of a story, it will often have:

  • Developed characters.

  • A plot.

  • Conflict and resolution.

What differentiates narrative poetry from a typically narrated story is that this poetry often has a formal rhyme scheme with the second and fourth lines of the poem rhyming. The purpose of narrative poetry is for the narrator to tell a series of events. To do this, the poet employs poetic devices. The poetic devices used in narrative poetry include metaphors, personification, and rhyming.

Narrative poetry is also different from narrative prose because, unlike narrative prose, it is written in verse and uses traditionally poetic devices that prose doesn't always adhere to.

Types of narrative poetry

Let's look at the different types of narrative poetry.

Ballads

A ballad is a type of narrative poetry that tells a story set to music. Ballads were created by poets and passed down orally, having peak popularity from the late medieval period until the nineteenth century. These popular ballads narrated tales of heroes, love, tragedy, and challenges, all typically set to music.

The poetic metre of ballads traditionally alternated between iambic tetrameter (four-stress lines) and iambic trimeter (three-stress lines).

Narrative Poetry. Image of black and white music notes. StudySmarter.Music notes, Pixabay.

One famous example of an old ballad with lyrical qualities is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' (1798).

Extract of 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner':

It is an ancient Mariner, And he stoppeth one of three. By thy long grey beard and glittering eye, Now wherefore stopp'st thou me? The bridegroom's doors are opened wide, And I am next of kin; The guests are met, the feast is set…

Poetic meter: a measure of the pauses and accent (stressed and unstressed parts) of a poem. It shows the rhythm of the words in a poem.

Iamb: an iamb describes a unit of rhythm and this is referred to as a type of 'foot'.

Iambic tetrameter: a meter (rhythmic structure) in poetry consisting of four iambic feet (‘tetra’ meaning ‘four’ in Latin). This gives three instances of an unaccented and then an accented syllable in a pair in one line.

Iambic trimeter: A meter (rhythmic structure) in poetry consisting of three iambic feet (‘tri’ meaning ‘three’ in Latin). So, four instances of an unaccented then an accented syllable in a pair in one line of a poem.

Top tip: the word ballad comes from medieval French ‘chanson balladée, which means ‘dancing songs’.

Epics

An epic is a long narrative poem which tells the tales of heroes. Epics can be texts and they can be exclusively passed down orally. Typical characteristics of epics are that they involve myths, heroic legends, and moral tales. Epics often include formidable heroes with legendary narratives of their actions.

Top tip: the word ‘Epic’ comes from the ancient Greek word ‘epos’, meaning ‘story’, ‘word’, ‘poem’.

Some of the most famous examples of an epic are the Homeric epics. The most well-known ones are the Illiad and the Odyssey (eighth century BC). The Illiad tells the story of the Trojan War. This war in Greek mythology was a ten-year siege of the city of Troy where a coalition of many Greek states ruled by King Agamemnon fought the Trojans, ruled by King Priam.

One of the most famous warriors was Achilles, who fought forKing Agamemnon. Achilles was known for being a formidable warrior, though his one weakness, his Achilles heel, was struck during battle in Troy and he died.

Narrative Poetry. Trojan horse featured in the story of Troy. StudySmarter.Trojan Horse, Pixabay.

Sing, Goddess, Achilles' rage,

Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks

Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls

Of heroes into Hades' dark,

And left their bodies to rot as feasts

For dogs and birds, as Zeus' will was done.

Begin with the clash between Agamemnon-

The Greek warlord - and godlike Achilles.

(The Iliad: Book 1, lines 1-9)

The Odyssey details the adventures of Odysseus, the Greek hero and king of Ithaca as he comes home after the Trojan War. During the Trojan War, Odysseus was amongst the most noteworthy Greek champions under King Agamemnon’s command.

The Trojan War lasted for ten years and Odysseus’ journey back home to Ithaca took ten more years. Odysseus was presumed to be dead because of his continued absence. The Odyssey tells of the changes Odysseus encounters after being away from home and presumed dead.

What a lamentable thing it is that men should blame the gods and regard us as the source of their troubles, when it is their own transgressions which bring them suffering that was not their destiny.

Consider Aegisthus: it was not his destiny to steal Agamemnon’s wife and murder her husband when he came home. He knew the result would be utter disaster, since we ourselves had sent Hermes, the keen-eyed Giant-slayer, to warn him neither to kill the man nor to court his wife. For Orestes, as Hermes told him, was bound to avenge Agamemnon as soon as he grew up and thought with longing of his home. Yet with all his friendly counsel Hermes failed to dissuade him. And now Aegisthus has paid the final price for all his sins.

(The Odyssey: Athene Visits Telemachus)

Arthurian Romances

This type of narrative poetry has its origins in twelfth-century France. Arthurian Romances are about the adventures and romances in King Arthur’s court during his reign in the fifth and sixth centuries. King Arthur warded off Saxon invasions and this is explored in some of his stories.

Other stories focus on his romance with his wife Guinevere and his relationship with the Knights of the Round Table. It is not determined whether or not King Arthur was a real person or a fictional character. Arthurian Romances feature moral and characteristic attitudes, such as chivalry and honour, that were very important during the time of King Arthur.

Narrative Poetry. King Arthur knighting one of his men. StudySmarter. King Arthur, Pixabay.

An example of Arthurian Romances is Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur (1485), Chapter 1, 'First, How Uther Pendragon sent for the duke of Cornwall and Ingraine his wife, and of their departing suddenly again'.

You can see how this poem is telling a story: it introduces the main characters and sets the scene with a location. It also has poetic elements, such as rhythm.

It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all England, and so reigned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornwall that held war against him long time. And the duke was called the Duke of Tintagil. And so by means King Uther sent for this duke, charging him to bring his wife with him, for she was called a fair lady, and a passing wise, and her name was called Igraine.

So when the duke and his wife were come unto the king, by the means of great lords they were accorded both. The king liked and loved this lady well, and he made them great cheer out of measure, and desired to have lain by her.

Example of narrative poetry

One famous example of narrative poetry is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ (1860). This poem is a commemoration piece for real-life American patriot Paul Revere, but the story detailed is partly fictional. ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ follows Paul Revere as he tells his friend to prepare signal lanterns in a church to give him enough warning about the British invasion by land or by sea. Paul would then spread the alarm in reaction to the signal across Massachusetts.

Extract of ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:

Hardly a man is now alive

Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, 'If the British march

By land or sea from the town to-night,

Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch

Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light,—

One if by land, and two if by sea;

And I on the opposite shore will be,

Ready to ride and spread the alarm

Through every Middlesex village and farm,

For the country-folk to be up and to arm.'

How to start writing narrative poetry

To start writing narrative poetry, think about how to build the narrator who is telling the story: what characteristics do you want them to have? Think of how you want the beginning, middle, and end of a character’s plot to play out. You should also consider the obstacles and conflicts you want them to face. Remember that narrative poetry focuses on plot over emotions.

What is the difference between lyric and narrative poetry?

The difference between lyric poetry and narrative poetry is that narrative poetry recalls a series of events, so its purpose is to tell a story. Lyric poetry tells the narrator’s emotions and thoughts, and this is not the focus of narrative poetry. Lyrical poetry is often shorter than narrative poetry, and the musical verses are created to help convey the narrator’s emotions and thoughts. Narrative poetry can have lyrical elements, just as lyrical poetry can have narrative elements.

Lyric poetryNarrative poetry
PurposeTells the narrator's emotions and thoughts as events are happening.Tells a series of events in a story-like manner, without a strong focus on the narrator's emotions and thoughts.
Element(s)Musical verse, dramatic declarations of emotion.Plot, character introductions, conflict, and resolution.
ExampleWilliam Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 18' (1609): 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day'.Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’: 'Listen, my children, and you shall hear/ Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere'.

Narrative Poetry - Key takeaways

  • Narrative poetry is poetry that tells a story. It is derived from oral traditions.

  • Narrative poetry has a beginning, middle, and end, but it can have an unpredictable structure.

  • Narrative poetry usually has one narrator who chronicles their tale of events.

  • The main characteristics of narrative poetry are developed characters, a plot, conflict, and resolution.

  • The types of narrative poetry are ballads, epics, and Arthurian romances.

Narrative Poetry

Narrative poetry has its origins in oral traditions. These tales were recounted and passed down orally through memory before they were documented in written language.

The difference between lyric poetry and narrative poetry is that narrative poetry recalls a series of events, so its purpose is to tell a story. Lyric poetry tells the narrator’s emotions and thoughts, and this is not the focus of narrative poetry.  

A characteristic of narrative poetry is that it has developed characters. 

Narrative poetry in literature is poetry that tells a story. It often has a typical story structure of a beginning, middle, and end. It typically had one narrator who chronicled the events.

To start writing narrative poetry, think about how to build the narrator who is telling the story- what characteristics do you want them to have? Think of how you want the beginning, middle and end of a character’s plot to play out. Think about the obstacles and conflicts you want to add.  

Final Narrative Poetry Quiz

Question

What is the history of narrative poetry?

Show answer

Answer

Narrative poetry has its origins in oral traditions. These tales were recounted and passed down orally through memory before they were documented in written language.

Show question

Question

What is the difference between lyric and narrative poetry? 

Show answer

Answer

The difference between lyric poetry and narrative poetry is that narrative poetry recalls a series of events, so its purpose is to tell a story. Lyric poetry tells the poet’s/narrator’s emotions and thoughts, and this is not the focus of narrative poetry.  

Show question

Question

What is a characteristic of narrative poetry? 

Show answer

Answer

A characteristic of narrative poetry is that it has developed characters. 

Show question

Question

What is narrative poetry in literature? 


Show answer

Answer

Narrative poetry in literature is poetry that tells a story. It often has a typical story structure of a beginning, middle and end. It typically had one narrator who chronicles the events.

Show question

Question

How do you start writing narrative poetry?


Show answer

Answer

To start writing narrative poetry, think about how to build the narrator who is telling the story- what characteristics do you want them to have? Think of how you want the beginning, middle and end of a character’s plot to play out. Think about the obstacles and conflicts you want to add.  

Show question

Question

What are the types of narrative poetry?

Show answer

Answer

The types of narrative poetry are ballads, epics and Arthurian romances.

Show question

Question

What is a ballad? Give a definition and example. 

Show answer

Answer

A ballad is a type of narrative poetry that tells a story set to music. These popular ballads narrated tales of heroes, love, tragedy and challenges, all typically set to music. The poetic metre of ballads traditionally alternated between iambic tetrameter (four-stress lines) and iambic trimeter (three-stress lines). 


An example of a ballad with lyrical qualities is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' (1798). 

Show question

Question

What is an epic? Give a definition and an example.

Show answer

Answer

An epic is a long narrative poem, which tells the tales of heroes. Typical characteristics of epics are that they involve myths, heroic legends and moral tales. Epics often include formidable heroes with legendary narratives of their actions.  


An example of an epic is Homer's 'Illiad' (8th century BC) or Homer's 'Odyssey' (8th century BC). 

Show question

Question

What is an Arthurian romance? 

Show answer

Answer

An Arthurian Romance is about the adventures and romances in King Arthur’s court during his reign in the 5th and 6th Centuries.  

Show question

Question

What is a famous example of narrative poetry featuring an American patriot?

Show answer

Answer

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ (1860). This poem is a commemoration piece for real-life American patriot Paul Revere, but the story detailed is partly fictional. 

Show question

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