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Narrative Poems: Types & Examples

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  • 0:04 Modern Narrative Poetry
  • 0:35 Idyll
  • 1:29 Epic Poetry
  • 2:46 Lay
  • 3:36 Ballad
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

Some of history's most famous heroes have been immortalized in narrative poetry: King Arthur, Odysseus, and even Jed Clampett. From Homer to Chaucer to Poe to The Beverly Hillbillies, narrative poetry has been used to preserve some of the world's greatest stories.

Modern Narrative Poetry

Officially titled 'The Ballad of Jed Clampett,' The Beverly Hillbillies theme song is just one of many examples of classical narrative poetry. Surprised? You shouldn't be! Narrative poems, or poems that tell a story, have existed in many forms over several centuries, and many of our favorite television shows start with nothing other than a narrative poem to give us the background for the stories to come.

Narrative poems actually come in several different forms: the idyll, the epic, the lay, and, as we see for Jed Clampett, the ballad.

Idyll

Defining an idyll poem isn't so easy. During the 3rd century BC, the idyll was a short pastoral poem, which often dealt with shepherds and rustic landscapes. Pastoral literature idealized country life, as opposed to city life, so it only make sense that such poems would focus on scenery rather than dramatic plots or the affairs of nobles. During the Renaissance, idylls were more specifically described as narrative pastorals as opposed to those that used dialogue.

The use of the word idyll was expanded further in the 19th century when it was used in poems that had no relation to the pastoral tradition. Among the most famous of these is Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King', a cycle of 12 narrative poems telling of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Today the word idyll is used to refer to poems with a pastoral, or tranquil, mood.

Epic Poetry

Unlike the idyll with its shepherds and pretty scenery, the epic poem is a long narrative poem with a hero who often encounters a monster or other magical creature. The epic dates all the way back to Ancient Greece, where Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad tells of Achilles and the Trojan War. The Odyssey continues years after the war and follows the Greek hero Odysseus through his postwar adventures.

Beyond the superhuman stories of Homer's poems, epics do have a distinct form known as the Homeric verse defined by its dactylic hexameter, which is a set of six feet with a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. These epics are known for their extended similes (long comparisons using like or as) and epithets.

An epithet describes a person, place, or thing in a way to bring out the characteristics in the object being described. For example, in the Odyssey, Homer describes a ship 'Sailing across the wine-dark sea…' The epithet 'wine-dark' enhances the description of the sea.

And like other Greek and Latin epics, they open with an invocation to the muse where the speaker asks for inspiration from one the nine muses from Greek mythology to help him create a worthy poem.

Lay

Like the other forms of narrative poetry, the lay (also spelled lai) takes on various definitions and forms over time. Beginning as French narratives in the 12th century, the lay made its way to English poetry in the 14th century as the Breton lay. These rhyming poems focused on a romance and included supernatural elements and medieval chivalry. 'The Franklin's Tale' in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is a Breton lay and even tells us so in its opening lines:

These old noble Bretons in their days
Of diverse adventures made lays,
Rhymed in their first Breton tongue,
Which lays with their instruments they sang

'The Franklin's Tale' tells the romantic story of Dorigen and Arveragus, a married couple who vow to respect one another and do so even when times are difficult.

Ballad

Ballads are also narrative poems that rhyme, but these poems, which are usually sung, are plot-driven, showing the reader a dramatic story by describing each event in detail rather than simply telling the reader what is happening. These poetic songs are often constructed in quatrains, a four-line stanza, with an 'abcb' rhyme scheme.

John Keats' La Belle Dame sans Merci, a ballad, follows this structure and rhyme scheme: abcb. 'Begone' and 'done' rhyme:

O what can ail the, knight-at arms, (a)
So haggard and so woe-begone? (b)
The squirrel's granary is full (c)
And the harvest's done. (b)

Not all ballads follow that structure and rhyme scheme, however. Edgar Allan Poe's 'Annabel Lee' does use stanzas and rhyme for a sing-song effect, but the pattern is slightly different. He uses six lines instead of the four and follows an ababcb rhyme scheme. 'Ago' and 'know' rhyme; 'sea', 'Lee' and 'me' rhyme:

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