10 Most Famous Narrative Poems of All Time

Narrative poetry is a form of poetry that tells a story through verse. Like a novel or a short story, a narrative poem has a plot, characters and a setting. Literary techniques like rhyme and meter are often used in narrative poetry to present a series of events. Some of the best known narrative poems are ancient epic poems. An epic poem is a long, narrative poem that is usually about heroic deeds and events that are significant to the culture of the poet. The most famous epic poems in the west include Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey; Paradise Lost by John Milton; and the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. In the east, the best known epic poems are the Indian epics Ramayan and Mahabharat, written by sages Valmiki and Vyasa respectively. Among the most popular shorter narrative poems are A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore; and The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. Here are the 10 most famous narrative poems of all time.

#10 A Visit from St. Nicholas

Poet:Clement Clarke Moore
Published:1823

This poem was first published anonymously in 1823. It was only in 1837 that Clement Clarke Moore, an American scholar of Hebrew, claimed authorship for it. He is said to have created the poem on a snowy winter’s day during a shopping trip on a sleigh. The poem narrates an incident in which Saint Nicholas visits a house in an airborne sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. It is largely responsible for the contemporary American conception of Santa Claus, including his appearance, the night he visits, his method of transportation, the number and names of his reindeer, and that he brings toys to children. A Visit from St. Nicholas is now known more from its first line “Twas the Night Before Christmas” than its original name. The poem has been called “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American”.

Poem:-

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

#9 Divine Comedy

Poet:Dante Alighieri
Year (Approx):1320

Dante Alighieri was an Italian poet who is widely regarded as the greatest poet in the Italian language and, in Italy, he is referred to as il Sommo Poeta (“the Supreme Poet”). His most famous work, Divine Comedy, is a long narrative poem which describes the journey of a man, assumed to be Dante, through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. It is thus divided into three parts: Inferno (Hell); Purgatorio (Purgatory); and Paradiso (Heaven). The traveler has two guides during his journey: Virgil, who leads him through the Inferno and Purgatorio; and Beatrice, who introduces him to Paradiso. Allegorically, the poem represents the journey of the soul towards God from recognition and rejection of sin (Inferno); followed by penitent Christian life (Purgatorio); followed by soul’s ascent to God (Paradiso). The poem is heavily influenced by medieval Roman Catholic theology and philosophy. The Divine Comedy is considered a landmark in Italian literature and as one of the greatest works of all European literature.

Excerpt (translated):-

Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric moved:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I shall endure.
All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

#8 The Raven

Poet:Edgar Allan Poe
Published:1845

In January 1845, The Raven appeared in the New York Evening Mirror and became an immediate popular sensation. It was soon reprinted, parodied and illustrated; and it made Edgar Allan Poe a household name. The poem tells the story of an unnamed lover who, while lamenting the death of his beloved Lenore, is visited by a talking raven. The raven enhances his distress with its constant repetition of the word “Nevermore”, slowly plunging him into madness. The poem makes use of a number of folk and mythological references; and is noted for its stylized language and supernatural atmosphere. It influenced numerous later works including the famous painting Nevermore by Paul Gauguin. The Raven is the most famous poem of Edgar Allan Poe, who is renowned for his dark romanticism, a sub-genre of Romanticism which reflects fascination with the irrational, the demonic and the grotesque.

Excerpt:-

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
            Only this and nothing more.”

    Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
    Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
    From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
            Nameless here for evermore.

    And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
    So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
    “’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
            This it is and nothing more.”

    Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
    But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
    And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
            Darkness there and nothing more.

Read Full Poem Here


#7 Pan Tadeusz

Poet:Adam Mickiewicz
Published:1834

Adam Mickiewicz is regarded as national poet in Poland, Lithuania and Belarus. He holds a central position in Polish literature and is widely regarded the greatest poet in his nation. His greatest masterpiece, Pan Tadeusz, focuses on the feud between two noble families complicated by the love between the titular character Tadeusz and a daughter of the rival family named Zosia. This setting serves as a backdrop for discussion of issues of Polish national unity and the struggle for independence. Pan Tadeusz is regarded as the national epic of Poland and it is compulsory to read the book in Polish schools. Moreover, it has been translated into 33 languages and adapted into TV and film versions. A 1999 film directed by Andrzej Wajda, titled Pan Tadeusz: The Last Foray in Lithuania, was critically acclaimed and won a number of awards. Pan Tadeusz is deemed as the last great epic poem in European literature. In 2014, it was incorporated into Poland’s list in the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme.

Excerpt (translated):-

O Lithuania, my native land,
you are like health--so valued when lost
beyond recovery; let these words now stand
restoring you, redeeming exile's cost.

Holy Virgin, defender of the Shrine
at Czestochowa, who illuminates 1
the Ostra Gate in Vilno, whose sign 2
revealed as one of her protectorates
the walled Novogrodek--who saved me once
with her miraculous glow. My tearful mother
entrusted me (it was her only chance,
I was near death) so when there was no other
cure, she helped to open up my eyes,
and once my lids were raised, though weak, I made
a pilgrimage to offer thanks and praise.

#6 Beowulf

Poet:Unknown
Year (Approx):c. 1000 CE

Beowulf is written in Old English or Anglo-Saxon, the earliest historical form of the English language. It is the oldest surviving long poem in Old English. In the poem, King Hrothgar, the ruler of the Danes, is troubled by a demon named Grendel. Beowulf, a young Geat warrior, comes to the aid of Hrothgar. He fights and defeats Grendel. The demon has a mother who tries to avenge her son but she is also defeated by Beowulf. Beowulf then returns to his land. He later becomes king of the Geats and rules for a period of fifty years. The Geats are then attacked by a dragon. Beowulf is able to defeat the dragon but he is mortally wounded in the battle. Beowulf is regarded as the highest achievement of Old English literature. It has been much analyzed over the years and scholars debate almost every aspect about this epic poem.

Excerpt (translated):-

LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!
To him an heir was afterward born,
a son in his halls, whom heaven sent
to favor the folk, feeling their woe
that erst they had lacked an earl for leader
so long a while; the Lord endowed him,
the Wielder of Wonder, with world’s renown.
Famed was this Beowulf: far flew the boast of him,
son of Scyld, in the Scandian lands.


#5 Paradise Lost

Poet:John Milton
Published:1667

Paradise Lost is regarded as the major work of John Milton which has established his reputation as one of the greatest English poets of his time. The poem takes place at what Christians believe to be the beginning of human history. It begins after Satan’s unsuccessful rebellion and the creation of the universe. Paradise Lost primarily focuses on the Biblical story of the Fall of Man, i.e. the story of the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, being tempted by Satan to eat the forbidden fruit, leading to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The primary theme of Milton’s epic is Man’s disobedience to God’s will, implying not only Adam’s disobedience, but of all mankind from first to last. Apart from sin, other prominent themes of the poem include fate, free will, pride, revenge and deceit. A widely read and analyzed masterpiece, Paradise Lost is perhaps the most famous epic poem in the English language.

Excerpt:-

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

#4 Odyssey

Poet:Homer
Era (Approx):8th Century BCE

Odyssey is an ancient epic poem, attributed to Homer, which primarily focuses on the Greek hero Odysseus, known as Ulysses in Roman myth. After the 10 year Trojan War, Odysseus, king of Ithaca, is unable to return home. It is assumed that he is dead and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus are pestered by a group of suitors, who compete for Penelope’s hand in marriage. The epic primarily focuses on the long journey of Odysseus to Ithaca and the challenges he has to face. The primary reason for which Odysseus has to face so much trouble is that he blinds the Cyclops, Polyphemus, who is a son of the Greek God Poseidon. Moreover, Odysseus foolishly reveals his name to the Cyclops as he boasts about deceiving the Cyclops. Polyphemus then prays to his father to curse Odysseus to wander the sea for ten years. Odyssey is highly valued as a classic and is regarded as one of the most important works in Western literature.

Excerpt (translated):-

SPEAK, MEMORY—
                                        Of the cunning hero,
The wanderer, blown off course time and again
After he plundered Troy's sacred heights.

                                                       Speak
Of all the cities he saw, the minds he grasped,
The suffering deep in his heart at sea
As he struggled to survive and bring his men home
But could not save them, hard as he tried—
The fools—destroyed by their own recklessness
When they ate the oxen of Hyperion the Sun,
And that god snuffed out their day of return.

                                   Of these things,

Speak, Immortal One,
And tell the tale once more in our time.

By now, all the others who had fought at Troy—
At least those who had survived the war and the sea—
Were safely back home. Only Odysseus
Still longed to return to his home and his wife.
The nymph Calypso, a powerful goddess—
And beautiful—was clinging to him
In her caverns and yearned to possess him.


#3 Iliad

Poet:Homer
Era (Approx):8th Century BCE

In Greek mythology, the Trojan War was waged against the city of Troy by the Greeks after Paris of Troy took Helen from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta. Iliad is an ancient Greek epic poem which focuses on the Trojan War with the Greek warrior Achilles being its primary focus. It is set during the ten-year siege of Troy by a coalition of Greek states. It recounts some of the significant events of the final weeks of the Trojan War. It mentions or alludes to many of the Greek legends about the siege; the earlier events; and the causes of the war. It also talks about events prophesied for the future, such as Achilles’ imminent death and the fall of Troy. Along with its sequel, the Odyssey, the Iliad is among the oldest extant and best known works in Western literature. Moreover, its impact on Western culture may be seen even today with numerous works in various art-forms being based on incidents and characters from the poem.

Excerpt (translated):-

RAGE:
               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.

   Which of the immortals set these two
At each other's throats?
                                    Apollo
Zeus' son and Leto's, offended
By the warlord. Agamemnon had dishonored
Chryses, Apollo's priest, so the god
Struck the Greek camp with plague,
And the soldiers were dying of it.

#2 Ramayan

Poet:Valmiki
Era (Approx):Ancient (Not Known)

Ramayan or Ramayana is an ancient Indian epic poem written in the Sanskrit language and attributed to legendary Maharishi (“Great Sage”) Valmiki. It narrates the story of Rama, the prince of the city of Ayodhya in the Kingdom of Kosala. Rama is the eldest son of King Dasharatha. However, his step-mother Kaikeyi wants the kingdom for her son Bharata. Thus on the behest of Kaikeyi, Dasharatha is forced to unwillingly send Ram to a fourteen year exile to the forest. During the exile, Rama’s wife, Sita, is kidnapped by Ravana, the powerful king of Lanka. With the assistance of his brother Lakshmana and his devotee Hanuman, Rama then wages war against Ravana. With a length of 24,000 verses, the Ramayana is one of the largest ancient epics in world literature. Read by millions of people every year, it is also one of the most influential texts ever written. Among other things, the characters of the poem, including Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharata, Hanuman and Ravana are all fundamental to the cultural consciousness of the nations of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Excerpt (translated):-

To sainted Nárad, prince of those
Whose lore in words of wisdom flows.
Whose constant care and chief delight
Were Scripture and ascetic rite,
The good Válmíki, first and best
Of hermit saints, these words addressed:
“In all this world, I pray thee, who
Is virtuous, heroic, true?
Firm in his vows, of grateful mind,
To every creature good and kind?
Bounteous, and holy, just, and wise,
Alone most fair to all men's eyes?
Devoid of envy, firm, and sage,
Whose tranquil soul ne'er yields to rage?
Whom, when his warrior wrath is high,
Do Gods embattled fear and fly?
Whose noble might and gentle skill
The triple world can guard from ill?
Who is the best of princes, he
Who loves his people's good to see?

#1 Mahabharat

Poet:Veda Vyasa
Era (Approx):Ancient (Not Known)

Mahabharat or Mahabharata is an ancient Indian epic composed in the Sanskrit language by legendary Maharishi Vyasa. It primarily focuses on the struggle between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, for the throne of the kingdom of Hastinapura. They are led by their eldest brothers Duryodhana and Yudhishthira respectively. The conflict culminates in the Great Battle of Kurukshetra, where numerous ancient kingdoms align themselves with one of the sides. The story of Mahabharata has numerous themes, the most prominent of which include Dharma, the duty and responsibility of an individual; and Karma, the action of an individual and its repercussions. The Mahabharata was transferred through oral tradition for centuries before it was finally put to text. It is the longest known epic poem ever written consisting of over 200,000 individual verse lines. Roughly, this is ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. Mahabharat contains numerous texts within it like the Bhagavad Gita, which has influenced many great thinkers, including Mahatma Gandhi, Aldous Huxley, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Nikola Tesla.

Excerpt (translated):-

Wrathful sons of Dhrita-rashtra, born of Kuru's royal race!
Righteous sons of noble Pandu, god-born men of godlike grace!

Skill in arms attained these princes from a Brahman warrior bold,
Drona, priest and proud preceptor, peerless chief of days of old!

Out spake Drona to the monarch in Hastina's royal hall,
Spake to Bhishma and to Kripa, spake to lords and courtiers all:

“Mark the gallant princes, monarch, trained in arms and warlike art,
Let them prove their skill and valour, rein the steed and throw the dart.”

Answered then the ancient monarch, joyful was his royal heart,
“Best of Brahmans and of warriors, nobly hast thou done thy part!

Name the place and fix the moment, hold a royal tournament,
Publish wide the laws of combat, publish far thy king's consent.

Sightless roll these orbs of vision, dark to me is noonday light,
Happier men will mark the tourney and the peerless princes' fight.

Let the good and wise Vidura serve thy mandate and behest,
Let a father's pride and gladness fill this old and cheerless breast.”

Then the good and wise Vidura unto his duties bound,
Drona, blessed with skill and wisdom, measured out the tourney ground,

Clear of jungle was the meadow, by a crystal fountain graced,
Drona on the lighted altar holy gifts and offerings placed,

Holy was the star auspicious, and the hour was calm and bright,
Men from distant town and hamlet came to view the sacred rite.

Then arose white stately mansions, built by architects of fame,
Decked with arms for Kuru's monarch and for every royal dame,

And the people built their stages circling round the listed green,
And the nobles with their white tents graced the fair and festive scene.

Brightly dawned the festal morning, and the monarch left his hall,
Bhishma and the pious Kripa with the lords and courtiers all,

And they came unto the mansions, gay and glittering, gold-encased,
Decked with gems and rich baidurya, and with strings of pearls be-laced.

Fair Gandhari, queen of Kuru, Pritha, Pandu's widowed dame,
Ladies in their gorgeous garments, maids of beauty and of fame,

Mounted on their glittering mansions where the tints harmonious blend,
As, on Meru's golden mountain, queens of heavenly gods ascend!

And the people of the city, Brahmans, Vaisyas, Kshatras bold,
Men from stall and loom and anvil gathered thick, the young and old,

And arose the sound of trumpet and the surging people's cry,
Like the voice of angry ocean, tempest-lashed, sublime and high!


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