Three Characteristics Of An Epic Poem You Need To Know

by Amy

Epic poems stand as monumental literary works that have captivated readers and scholars for centuries. These grand narratives, often rooted in ancient traditions and mythologies, possess distinct characteristics that set them apart from other forms of poetry. In this article, we delve into three key characteristics of epic poems, unraveling their complexity and enduring appeal.

Heroic Protagonist and Heroic Deeds

Central to the essence of an epic poem is the presence of a heroic protagonist, a figure of exceptional qualities and virtues. This protagonist embarks on a journey or quest of epic proportions, facing formidable challenges and adversaries along the way. The heroic deeds performed by the protagonist often involve feats of strength, courage, wisdom, and resilience, showcasing their noble character and indomitable spirit.

One of the most iconic examples of a heroic protagonist is found in Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey.” The protagonist, Odysseus, is a cunning and resourceful hero who endures a decade-long voyage filled with mythical creatures, divine interventions, and epic battles. His journey to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan War is a testament to his resilience and unwavering determination, making him a timeless symbol of heroism in literature.

Similarly, in the epic poem “Beowulf,” the eponymous hero Beowulf demonstrates unparalleled bravery and strength as he confronts monstrous adversaries like Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a fearsome dragon. His heroic deeds, coupled with his sense of honor and duty, epitomize the heroic archetype that is central to the epic tradition.

Grand Scope and Epic Setting

Another hallmark of epic poems is their grand scope and expansive setting, often spanning vast geographical regions and encompassing multiple generations or epochs. These poems transport readers into richly imagined worlds populated by gods, mythical creatures, kings, warriors, and other legendary figures. The epic setting serves as a backdrop for the heroic journey, providing a stage where epic events unfold on a grand scale.

In Virgil’s “The Aeneid,” the epic scope of the poem is evident in its depiction of the founding of Rome and the legendary hero Aeneas’ epic voyage from Troy to Italy. The narrative encompasses divine interventions, epic battles, tragic love stories, and the fulfillment of prophecies, all set against the backdrop of a tumultuous ancient world. The grandeur of the setting mirrors the magnitude of Aeneas’ quest and the destiny of Rome itself.

Likewise, in Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the epic setting extends beyond Earth to encompass Heaven, Hell, and the realms of angels and demons. The cosmic scale of the poem explores themes of good versus evil, free will versus predestination, and the fall of humanity, making it a monumental work of epic literature that grapples with profound theological and philosophical questions.

Elevated Language and Epic Style

Epic poems are characterized by their use of elevated language and epic style, which elevate the narrative to a lofty and dignified level befitting the heroic subject matter. The language employed in epic poems often includes formal diction, elaborate descriptions, epic similes, epithets, and rhythmic patterns such as meter and rhyme schemes. These linguistic devices contribute to the epic’s lyrical beauty and mnemonic power, enhancing its memorability and oral performance tradition.

In “The Iliad,” Homer’s epic style is exemplified by his use of Homeric epithets, such as “swift-footed Achilles” or “wine-dark sea,” which add richness and texture to the narrative while aiding in the memorization of the poem. The rhythmic cadence of dactylic hexameter, the meter used in ancient Greek epic poetry, lends a musical quality to the verses, enhancing their oral recitation and performance.

Similarly, in Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” the use of terza rima, a three-line stanza form with interlocking rhymes, contributes to the poem’s structural elegance and unity. The elevated language employed by Dante reflects the lofty themes of spiritual redemption, cosmic order, and the journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, elevating the epic to a transcendent masterpiece of Western literature.


Epic poems possess three core characteristics that define their timeless allure: a heroic protagonist and heroic deeds, a grand scope and epic setting, and elevated language and epic style. These elements combine to create literary masterpieces that resonate across cultures and generations, offering profound insights into the human experience and the enduring power of storytelling.


What must an epic poem contain?

An epic poem must contain several essential elements that distinguish it from other forms of poetry:

1. A Heroic Protagonist: The poem typically revolves around a heroic protagonist who embarks on a grand journey or quest, demonstrating exceptional qualities such as courage, strength, wisdom, and resilience.

2. Heroic Deeds and Challenges: The protagonist engages in heroic deeds and faces formidable challenges, often involving epic battles, encounters with mythical creatures, and tests of character.

3. Epic Scope and Setting: Epic poems have a vast scope, spanning multiple geographical locations, epochs, or generations. The setting is often richly imagined, featuring mythical realms, divine interventions, and historical or legendary events.

4. Elevated Language and Style: Epic poems use formal and elevated language, incorporating literary devices such as epic similes, epithets, meter, and rhyme schemes. The style is dignified and lyrical, enhancing the narrative’s grandeur and memorability.

5. Themes of Universal Significance: Epic poems explore themes of universal significance, such as heroism, fate, honor, loyalty, justice, and the human condition. These themes resonate across cultures and time periods, offering insights into fundamental aspects of human experience.

Do epic poems have to rhyme?

Epic poems do not necessarily have to rhyme. While some epic poems, such as Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” or Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” use rhyme schemes, many traditional epic poems, especially those from ancient oral traditions, rely more on meter and rhythmic patterns than strict rhyme. For instance, Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” are written in dactylic hexameter, a metrical pattern that emphasizes rhythmic structure rather than end rhymes.

The use of rhyme in epic poems can vary depending on the poet’s style, cultural traditions, and historical context. Some epic poets may employ rhyme to enhance the musicality and memorability of the verses, while others may prioritize meter, alliteration, or other poetic devices.

Ultimately, the decision to include rhyme in an epic poem is a stylistic choice that depends on the poet’s artistic vision and the conventions of the literary tradition in which the poem is situated.

What are the two types of epic poems?

Epic poems can be broadly categorized into two main types based on their origins and cultural contexts:

1. Primary or Traditional Epics: These epics emerge from oral traditions and are often associated with ancient cultures and civilizations. Examples include Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” which are foundational works of ancient Greek literature and oral poetry. Traditional epics are characterized by their focus on legendary or mythological heroes, epic quests, and the transmission of cultural values and narratives through oral performance.

2. Literary or Secondary Epics: These epics are written by individual authors within a literary tradition and are influenced by classical models of epic poetry. Unlike traditional epics, which evolve organically over time through oral storytelling, literary epics are consciously crafted works of literature. Examples of literary epics include Virgil’s “The Aeneid,” Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.” Literary epics often engage with classical themes, mythological motifs, and philosophical ideas while reflecting the artistic and intellectual currents of their respective eras.

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