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
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”.
Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ 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 danc’d in their heads,
#9 Divine Comedy
Poet: Dante Alighieri
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.
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
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.
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
#7 Pan Tadeusz
Poet: Adam Mickiewicz
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.
O Lithuania, my homeland! thou art like health;
Only he can truly appreciate thy worth
Who has lost thee. Now I see and sing thy beauty
In all of its glory, because I long for thee.
Published: c. 1000 AD
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.
Beowulf answered, Ecgtheow’s son:
“Grieve not, O wise one! for each it is better,
His friend to avenge than with vehemence wail him;
Each of us must the end-day abide of
His earthly existence; who is able accomplish
Glory ere death! To battle-thane noble
Lifeless lying, ’tis at last most fitting.
#5 Paradise Lost
Poet: John Milton
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.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence
Year: 8th century BC
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.
Men are so quick to blame the gods: they say
that we devise their misery. But they
themselves- in their depravity- design
grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns.
Year: 8th century BC
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.
Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men: as one generation comes to life, another dies away.
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.
O King, abundant are yes-men, always pleasant spoken,
Rare are the speakers and listeners of the unpleasant but medicinal
Poet: Veda Vyasa
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.
You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. Never give way to laziness, either.
Perform every action with you heart fixed on the Supreme Lord. Renounce attachment to the fruits. Be even-tempered in success and failure: for it is this evenness of temper which is meant by yoga.
Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender. Seek refuge in the knowledge of Brahma. They who work selfishly for results are miserable.