Epic Poem

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Poem, Epic


(poema; also, narrative poem), a lengthy work in verse, with an epic or lyrical plot. Ancient and medieval epic poems (epopees, or epos) were either anonymous or of known authorship. There are a number of theories regarding their origin. A. N. Veselovskii contends that they took shape through the gathering of songs and legends into cycles. According to A. Heusler, they developed by means of the expansion of one or more folk legends. A. Lord and M. Parry argue that ancient and medieval epic poems evolved as part of folklore, by means of complex modifications of ancient tales.

The epic poem developed from the epopee, which depicted events of national historical importance (for example, the Iliad, the Mahabharata, and the Chanson de Roland). There are many varieties of the genre, including heroic, didactic, satirical, burlesque (including comic heroic), and lyrical dramatic epic poems, as well as epic poems with romantic plots. For a long time, epic poems based on national historical or universal historical (religious) themes were thought to constitute the leading branch of the genre. Among these poems were Vergil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, L. de Camões’ Os Lusíadas, Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Voltaire’s Henriade, F. G. Klopstock’s The Messiah, and M. N. Kheraskov’s Rossiada. Another very important branch of the genre was the epic poem with romantic plot, which was to some degree associated with the traditions of the medieval, especially the chivalrous, novel. This group of poems included Sh. Rustaveli’s The Man in the Panther’s Skin, Ferdowsi’s Shah-nameh, and, to some extent, L. Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.

Gradually, problems of personality and ethical philosophy achieved prominence in the epic poem, lyric and dramatic elements became more intense, and the folkloric tradition was discovered and used. These features were already characteristic of preromantic works, such as Goethe’s Faust and epic poems by J. Macpherson and W. Scott. The genre flourished during the romantic period, when epic poems were created by major poets of various nationalities.

The high point in the evolution of romantic epic poems is represented by works that are sociophilosophical or symbolic and philosophical: Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman, A. Mickiewicz’s Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve), M. Iu. Lermontov’s The Demon, and H. Heine’s Germany, A Winter’s Tale.

In the second half of the 19th century, the genre began to decline, but occasionally outstanding works were created (for example, H. W. Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha). N. A. Nekrasov’s narrative poems (Frost the Red-nosed and Who Can Be Happy in Russia?) exhibit generic tendencies characteristic of the development of the epic poem in realistic literature (the synthesis of the heroic and the description of mores).

In 20th-century epic poems the most intimate experiences are correlated with great historical events, as if the lives of the characters had been suffused by the events (Mayakovsky’s The Cloud in Pants, A. A. Blok’s The Twelve, and A. Belyi’s First Meeting).

In Soviet poetry there are a number of generic varieties of epic poem, including lyrical psychological poems (Mayakovsky’s “About This” and S. A. Esenin’s Anna Snegina) and poems that resurrect the heroic principle (Mayakovsky’s “It’s Good!” and Vladimir Il’ich Lenin, B. L. Pasternak’s 1905, and A. T. Tvar-dovskii’s Vasilii Terkiri). The philosophical variety of epic poem is represented by works by N. A. Zabolotskii and E. Mezhelai-tis; the historical variety, by L. Martynov’s Tobol’sk Chronicler; and the variety that combines ethical with sociohistorical problems, by V. Lugovskoi’s Midcentury.

The epic poem is still important in world poetry as a synthesizing, lyrical dramatic, and monumental genre that makes it possible to combine the epic of the heart with the “music” and elemental force of earthshaking events and to intertwine intimate feelings with a conception of history. Among the most outstanding examples of contemporary epic poems are R. Frost’s “Mending Wall” and “Storm Fear,” Saint-John Perse’s Seamarks, T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, P. Neruda’s Canto general (General Song), K. I. Galczyński’s Niobe, P. Eluard’s Poésie ininterrompue (Incessant Poetry), and Nazim Hikmet’s Zoia.


Hegel. Estetika, vol. 3. Moscow, 1971.
Veselovskii, A. N. Istoricheskaia poetika. Leningrad, 1940.
Zhirmunskii, V. M. Bairon i Pushkin. Leningrad, 1924.
Golenishchev-Kutuzov, I. N. Tvorchestvo Dante i mirovaia kul’tura. Moscow, 1971.
Sokolov, A. N. Ocherki po istorii russkoi poemy 18 i pervoi pol. 19 vv. Moscow, 1956.
Teoriia literatury… [book 2] Moscow, 1964.
Bowra, C. Heroic Poetry. London, 1952.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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