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 like The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer. However, in this articles we focus on short narrative poems, the ones that are not epics. The earliest poem on our list is We are Seven by William Wordsworth, which was written in late 18th century; while the latest poem is Out, Out by Robert Frost, which was written in early 20th century. Here are the 10 most famous narrative poems in English literature.
#10 We are Seven
Poet: William Wordsworth
Along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth is credited with launching the Romantic Age in English literature. He remains one of the most popular poets of all time. A ballad is a poem or song narrating a story in short stanzas. Written in ballad form, We are Seven gives an account of a conversation between an adult poetic speaker and a little cottage girl which centers around the adult questioning the girl how many siblings does she have. The little girl counts her two dead siblings as part of the family and the adult who is perplexed tries to reason with her. The poem ends with the girl saying, “Nay, we are seven!” The poem remains popular for its simple narrative and complex implications.
“Seven boys and girls are we;
“Two of us in the church-yard lie,
“Beneath the church-yard tree.”
#9 The Spider and the Fly
Poet: Mary Howitt
Mary Howitt was an English poet active in the 19th century. Her most famous poem, The Spider and the Fly, tells the story of a cunning spider who lures a fly into his trap by the use of seduction and manipulation. Among other things, the spider entices the fly by offering her a comfortable bed and showing a fake concern for her weariness. The predominant tone of the poem is one of deception. Its primary theme is the folly of human beings of being convinced by kind words and flattery without using their mind to judge the true intentions of a person. The first line of the poem; “‘Will you walk into my parlour?’ said the Spider to the Fly.”; is one of the most recognized and quoted first lines in all of English verse.
“Will you walk into my parlor?” said the spider to the fly;
“‘Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy.
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many pretty things to show when you are there.”
“O no, no,” said the little fly, “to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.”
#8 Casey at the Bat
Poet: Ernest Thayer
Ernest Lawrence Thayer was an American author who is best known for writing this poem. The full title of the poem is Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888. It narrates a baseball game in which the home team of the fictional town of “Mudville” is dependent on their star player, Casey, to win them a game they are losing by two runs. First published in The San Francisco Examiner, Casey at the Bat is one of the best-known poems in American literature. It has been called “the single most famous baseball poem ever written” by the Baseball Almanac. Moreover, it has been widely referred to in American culture including in films, comics, theater, music, television and radio.
The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
the score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
a sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.
#7 Out, Out
Poet: Robert Frost
The title of this poem is an allusion to the quotation: “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow…” in William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. It is spoken by Macbeth after he hears that his wife has committed suicide and refers to how unpredictable and fragile life is. The poem tells the story of a young boy whose hand gets accidentally severed by a buzz saw leading to his death due to excessive bleeding. It ends with people’s reaction to the death and how life still goes on. Robert Frost focuses on the innocence and passivity of the boy in the poem and Out, Out is considered by some as a critique on how war forces young boys to leave their childhood behind and be destroyed due to the circumstances created by ‘responsible’ adults. Out, Out is among Robert Frost’s most critically acclaimed and renowned poems.
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. “Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!”
#6 The Walrus and the Carpenter
Poet: Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll was an English writer of the 19th century who is best known for the children’s fiction book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Walrus and the Carpenter is a nonsense poem which narrates the story of the titular characters who come across a bed of oysters while walking on the seashore. The poem is recited by the characters Tweedledum and Tweedledee to Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland. The Walrus and the Carpenter is perhaps the most analyzed poem of Carroll with much speculation about its meaning. Commentators have interpreted the predatory walrus and carpenter as representing, respectively, Buddha and Christ. However, others deny this interpretation and find different meanings in the poem.
‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.’
#5 Annabel Lee
Poet: Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe is the most famous American romantic poet and one of the most influential figures in English literature. This was his last complete poem and it was published in New York Tribune on 9th October 1849, two days after his death. The poem follows one of Poe’s recurrent themes — the death of a young, beautiful and dearly loved woman. The narrator, who fell in love with Annabel Lee when they were young, believes that their love was so intense that angels became envious and caused her death. He retains his love for her even after her death and is sure they will be reunited. Annabel Lee is thought to be written by Poe in memory of his wife Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, who had died a couple of years earlier.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
#4 The Charge of the Light Brigade
Poet: Alfred Lord Tennyson
The Charge of the Light Brigade was a charge of British light cavalry led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on 25th October 1854, in the Crimean War. It was originally intended to send the Light Brigade to pursue a retreating Russian force but miscommunication led to them launching a suicidal attack against a different and heavily defended position. Weeks after news of the assault reached Britain, Tennyson, the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom at the time, wrote this poem to commemorate the heroism of the Light Brigade for bravely carrying out their orders regardless of the obvious outcome. The poem has since remained hugely popular and it is one of the most famous works of Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
#3 The Highwayman
Poet: Alfred Noyes
Born in Wolverhampton, England, Alfred Noyes was a traditionalist poet remembered chiefly for his lyrical verse. The Highwayman, his best known poem, has etched his name in the history of English literature. A romantic ballad, the poem was first published in the Blackwood’s Magazine in August 1906. It is set in 18th-century rural England and tells the story of an unnamed highwayman who is in love with a landlord’s daughter named Bess. He is betrayed to the authorities by a jealous stableman. However, Bess sacrifices her life to warn him of the ambush and he is able to escape. Learning of her death, the highwayman dies in a futile attempt at revenge, shot down on the highway. Noyes has used vivid imagery in the poem and The Highwayman is reputed to be “the best ballad poem in existence for oral delivery”. Noyes later said that the success of the poem was due to the fact that at that age he was “genuinely excited by that kind of romantic story”.
The tip of one finger touched it. She strove no more for the rest.
Up, she stood up to attention, with the muzzle beneath her breast.
She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;
For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins, in the moonlight, throbbed to her love’s refrain.
#2 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,
#1 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.”