epic poem - definition

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epic poem - definition

define epic poem

An epic poem is simply a long poem. How "long" is "long"? There is no set definition.

How long does a poem have to be to count as an epic poem? That's a bit like asking how "long" a story has to be to qualify as a novel. Tolstoy's War and Peace is definitely a novel. One of Aesop's fables is definitely not. Between these two extremes lie a number of cases which we could argue about. Take Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," for example. It is generally thought of as a novel, but it is short enough to be characterized as something lesser - a novella, perhaps.

Here is a slightly longer definition:-

An epic poem is a long poem typically dealing with events which are legendary, historical, mythical or a combination. It typically involves a struggle of some description.

A couple of points about the slightly longer definition:-

"Legendary" means "based on fact, although perhaps remotely" whereas "mythical" means "made up out of thin air".

The statement that an epic poem "typically involves a struggle of some description" is true but really adds nothing to the definition, since most literature involves a struggle. This statement has just been thrown in as ballast.

The epic poems which have most influenced English literature are The Iliad and The Odyssey, two poems in Homeric Greek which the ancient world attributed to a poet called Homer, who by tradition is reputed to have been blind.

Scholars have long and fiercely debated the question of whether The Iliad and The Odyssey were in fact composed by Homer, or even whether "Homer" ever existed, which tells us that nobody really knows for certain.

What is generally accepted is that The Iliad and The Odyssey were transmitted orally, and were probably not written down during the lifetime (or lifetimes) of the creator (or creators).

As mentioned above, The Iliad and The Odyssey were written in Homeric Greek, a version of ancient Greek used by Homer, whoever he was (or was not, as the case may be.)

The most significant epic written in English is Paradise Lost by John Milton.

Milton resources on this website:-


1. a simple academic essay, Milton's Satan

2. a speculative diary entry interpreting Milton's Paradise Lost as a poem more about sex than about religion.

3. a science fiction story called Bad Sex which, again, speculates about Milton and sex.

4. there is also some material which relates, peripherally, to Milton and Paradise Lost - this tangential material touches on Homer's Iliad and is in the diary file about the Trojan War. (If you want to know how Homer relates to Milton then the essay Milton's Satan should give you a hint or two.)

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