Classifications of epic poetry

There are number of ways in which literary scholars have tried to classify the varied types of poems that are generally considered to be "Epics." The following two systems are offered for the students' consideration:

I. C.S. Lewis (A Preface to Paradise Lost) distinguishes between primary and secondary epic poetry.

Primary epic- poetry 'which stems from heroic deeds and which is composed, in the first instance, in order that such deeds may not be forgotten." It is practical in purporting to record historical events and deals with the real world, "however much glamour may be added in the process."

Secondary epic- poetry which may deal with heroic legend or with more abstract themes than the type available to primary epic, and which is composed, not as a historical record of the past, bout as a poet's artistic interpretation or re-creation of legend or theme. "Much is imagined and imaginary, so that a new world is created. The combination of the poet's 'seeing eye' and his personal style together create something which is not based on reality, but has a life of its own to be transmitted to the mind of the reader."

II. A more or less standard classification distinguishes between literary epic poetry and oral epic poetry.

Literary epic poetry- poetry written and intended for a reading audience by a literate poet. (This kind of epic generally coincides with C.S. Lewis' "secondary epic poetry and includes such works as the Aeneid of Vergil, The Divine Comedy of Dante, The Fairie Queen of Spenser, Jerusalem Delivered of Tasso, and Paradise Lost of John Milton. This category may, however, on occasion admit a poem that seems to be "primary;" this would seem to be the case with Beowulf, whose poet was most certainly literate in Anglo-Saxon and Latin, and who was familiar with Vergil's Aeneid, which he consciously imitates in part, while attempting to preserve the historical deeds of a great hero of the past, as handed down by an Anglo-Saxon oral poetic tradition).

Oral epic poetry- heroic poetry that is composed for, and at the time of, oral performance. (All the poems of this category would be considered "primary" in Mr. Lewis' schema.)

These heroic poems have a number of common characteristics:

(1) the choice of stories from a time when a superior race of men lives for action and for the honor and renown which it brings.

(2) the realistic presentation of minor details to form a solid background.

(3) the use of the single line, instead of the stanza, as the metrical unit;

(4) the taste for speeches, often of some length, spoken by the different characters;

(5) literary devices to vary or assist the narrative, such as similes, repeated passages, and incidental stories;

(6) the reluctance of the poet to assert his own personality;

(7) the dependence on a tradition which is passed from generation to generation, and from poet to poet, and {which} supplies stories, themes, and language.

Oral epic poetry differs from literary epic poetry in:

(1) method of composition

(2) method of delivery to the audience

(3) role of the audience.

Literary epic poetry is poetry which has been composed and written down by a highly literate poet, who works in much the same way as you might write an essay or poem. Literary epic poetry belongs to the kind of literature that we are familiar with. But oral epic poetry is not the same as literary epic, even when it is transcribed and published in book form (as is our Iliad). Oral epic poetry is not simply poetry that is written for the purpose of oral presentation (from memory). Rather, oral poetry is poetry that is composed orally -- without the aid of writing or notes -- on the spot -- poetry that is actually created at the time of recitation. This different method of composition and delivery make different demands on an aural audience than the demands which are made on a reading audiences. Because the audience may be more or less attentive at any given time, the poet must be able to modify his story to suit the audience -- i.e. he must be able to be concise when the audience is not interested in details and must be able to expand his narrative by means of descriptions, similes, and other details when an audience is eager for such. Thus the aural audience plays a dynamic role in actual process of the creating of oral poetry.

While this kind of poetry is generally unfamiliar to us, who come from highly literate society, it is still practiced in many parts of the world today, including the Balkans, Greece, Turkey and certain States of the U.S.S.R.

In order to create poetry of this sort, a poet must have a prodigious memory and a flexible, highly traditional, language.

This "traditional" language is a language within a language -- a poetic version of the spoken language, which has been developed over the centuries by generations of poets. What makes this language a "poetic version" is its highly formulaic character; that is the basic units in the traditional poetic language or formulas, not simply words.

This material has been used for many years by Professor Tom Sienkewicz in his courses at Howard University and at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. If you have any questions, you may contact him at

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