What Is Narrative Poetry? Definition and Examples

A Roman soldier swings his sword above a monster in swirling water.
The legendary Perseus slays a sea monster to free Andromeda in the narrative epic, Metamorphoses by Latin poet Ovid. Detail from a 16th century painting by Piero di Cosimo.

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Narrative poetry tells stories through verse. Like a novel or a short story, a narrative poem has plot, characters, and setting. Using a range of poetic techniques such as rhyme and meter, the narrative poet presents a series of events, often including action and dialogue.

In most cases, narrative poems have only one speaker—the narrator—who relates the entire story from beginning to end. For example, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" is narrated by a grieving man who, over the course of 18 stanzas, describes his mysterious confrontation with a raven and his descent into despair.

Key Takeaways: Narrative Poetry

  • Narrative poetry presents a series of events through action and dialogue.
  • Most narrative poems feature a single speaker: the narrator.
  • Traditional forms of narrative poetry include epics, ballads, and Arthurian romances.

Origins of Narrative Poetry

The earliest poetry was not written but spoken, recited, chanted, or sung. Poetic devices like rhythm, rhyme, and repetition made stories easier to memorize so they could be transported long distances and handed down through generations. Narrative poetry evolved from this oral tradition.

In nearly every part of the world, narrative poetry established a foundation for other literary forms. Among the highest achievements of ancient Greece, The Iliad and The Odyssey have inspired artists and writers for more than 2,000 years.

India produced two monumental Sanskrit narratives. The Mahabharata is the world's longest poem with over 100,000 couplets. The timeless Ramayana spread Indian culture and ideas across Asia, influencing literature, performance, and architecture.

Narrative poetry became an enduring literary tradition throughout the Western world. Chansons de geste ("songs of deeds") composed in Old French stimulated literary activity in medieval Europe. The German saga now known as the Nibelungenlied lives on in Richard Wagner's lavish opera series, The Ring of the Nibelung (Der Ring des Nibelungen). The Anglo Saxon narrative Beowulf has inspired modern-day books, movies, operas, and computer games.

Types of Narrative Poems

Ancient and medieval narrative poems were most commonly epics. Written in a grandiose style, these epic narrative poems retold legends of virtuous heroes and powerful gods. Other traditional forms include Arthurian romances about knights and chivalry and ballads about love, heartbreak, and dramatic events.

However, narrative poetry is an ever-evolving art, and there are countless other ways to tell stories through verse. The following examples illustrate several different approaches to narrative poetry.

Example #1: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha

"On the Mountains of the Prairie,
On the great Red Pipe-stone Quarry,
Gitche Manito, the mighty,
He the Master of Life, descending,
On the red crags of the quarry
Stood erect, and called the nations,
Called the tribes of men together."

– from The Song of Hiawatha, I, "The Peace Pipe, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Song of Hiawatha by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) narrates Native American legends in metrical verse that mimics the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala. In turn, The Kalevala echoes early narratives such as The Iliad, Beowulf, and the Nibelungenlied

Longfellow's long poem has all the elements of classical epic poetry: a noble hero, a doomed love, gods, magic, and folklore. Despite its sentimentality and cultural stereotypes, The Song of Hiawatha suggests the haunting rhythms of Native chants and establishes a uniquely American mythology.

Example #2: Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King

“I fain would follow love, if that could be;
I needs must follow death, who calls for me;
Call and I follow, I follow! let me die.”

– from Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

An idyll is a narrative form that originated in ancient Greece, but this idyll is an Arthurian romance based on British legends. In a series of twelve blank verse poems, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) tells the story of King Arthur, his knights, and his tragic love for Guinevere. The book-length work is drawn from medieval writings by Sir Thomas Malory.

By writing about chivalry and courtly love, Tennyson allegorized behaviors and attitudes he saw in his own Victorian society. Idylls of the King elevates narrative poetry from story-telling to social commentary.

Example #3: Edna St. Vincent Millay, "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver"

“Son,” said my mother,

 When I was knee-high, 

“You’ve need of clothes to cover you,

 And not a rag have I.

 

“There’s nothing in the house

 To make a boy breeches,

Nor shears to cut a cloth with

 Nor thread to take stitches."

— from "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver" by Edna St. Vincent Millay

"The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver" tells the story of a mother's unconditional love. By the end of the poem, she dies weaving her child magical clothes from her harp. The mother's dialog is quoted by her son, who placidly accepts her sacrifice.

American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950) cast the story as a ballad, a form that evolved from traditional folk music. Iambic meter and a predictable rhyme scheme create a sing-song rhythm that suggests child-like innocence.

Famously recited by country musician Johnny Cash, "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver" is both sentimental and disturbing. The narrative poem can be understood as a simple story about poverty or a complex commentary on the sacrifices women make to clothe men in the garbs of royalty. In 1923, Edna St. Vincent Millay won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection of the same title.

Story song ballads became an important part of American folk song tradition of the 1960s. Popular examples include Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" and Pete Seeger's "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy."

Example #4: Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red

 “…Small, red, and upright he waited,
gripping his new bookbag tight
in one hand and touching a lucky penny inside his coat pocket with the other,
while the first snows of winter
floated down on his eyelashes and covered the branches around him and silenced
all trace of the world.” 
― from Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson

Canadian poet and translator Anne Carson (1950– ) loosely based Autobiography of Red on an ancient Greek myth about a hero's battle with a red-winged monster. Writing in free verse, Carson recreated the monster as a moody boy who battles modern-day problems related to love and sexual identity.

Carson's book-length work belongs to a genre-jumping category known as the "verse novel." Autobiography of Red shifts between description and dialogue, poetry and prose, as the story moves through layers of meaning.

Unlike long verse narratives from antiquity, novels in verse do not adhere to established forms. Russian author Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) used a complex rhyme scheme and an unconventional meter for his verse novel, Eugene Onegin. English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861) composed Aurora Leigh, in blank verse. Also writing in blank verse, Robert Browning (1812–1889) composed his novel-length The Ring and the Book from a series of monologues spoken by different narrators.

Vivid language and simple stories have made book-length narrative poetry a popular trend in young adult publishing. Jacqueline Woodson's National Book Award-winning Brown Girl Dreaming describes her childhood as an African American growing up in the South. Other best selling verse novels include The Crossover by Kwame Alexander and the "Crank Trilogy" by Ellen Hopkins.

Identifying Narrative Poetry

Narrative is one of three major categories of poetry: narrative, dramatic, and lyric. Each type of poetry has distinct characteristics and functions. Narrative poems emphasize plot while lyric poems emphasize self-expression. Dramatic poetry, like Shakespeare's blank verse plays, is an extended stage production, usually with many different speakers.

However, the distinction between genres may blur as poets weave lyrical language into narrative poems. Similarly, a narrative poem might resemble dramatic poetry when the poet incorporates more than one narrator.

The defining feature of narrative poetry is the narrative arc. From the epic tales of ancient Greece to 21st century verse novels, the narrator moves through a chronology of events from challenge and conflict to a final resolution.

Sources

  • Addison, Catherine. "The Verse Novel as Genre: Contradiction or Hybrid?" Style. Vol. 43, No. 4 Winter 2009, pp. 539-562. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/style.43.4.539
  • Carson, Anne. Autobiography of Red. Random House, Vintage Contemporaries. March 2013.
  • Clark, Kevin. "Time, Story, and Lyric in Contemporary Poetry." The Georgia Review. 5 March 2014. https://thegeorgiareview.com/spring-2014/time-story-and-lyric-in-contemporary-poetry-on-the-contemporary-narrative-poem-critical-crosscurrents-edited-by-steven-p-schneider-patricia-smiths-shoulda-been-jimi-savannah-robert-wr/
  • Longfellow, Henry W. The Song of Hiawatha. Maine Historical Society. http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=62
  • Tennyson, Alfred, Lord. Idylls of the King. The Camelot Project. University of Rochester. https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/publication/idylls-of-the-king-1859-1885