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THE 20 GREATEST EPIC POEMS OF ALL TIME

Few have better expressed the tumultuous rise and fall of civilizations better than the great Epic poets
of ancient and modern times. By combining elevated language with war, betrayal, romance, adventure,
and a whole lot of reflection, these twenty lengthy tomes have captured the essence of whole peoples
in single (albeit gigantic) works, ranging from semi-fictional accounts of war to satirical mockeries of
misguided heroism.
Epic poetryor heroic poetry, as some of the medieval poets have called itfollows a certain time-tested
formula to portray such grand representations of heroes and their followers. Here are a few recurring
patterns to keep in mind when considering these texts:
The invocation of a muse. These poets plea to the gods at the very beginning to grant them the power to
tell these stories with a certain forcefulness, though some admittedly pretend to do so to claim they are
divinely empowered.
Many of these begin in medias res, in the middle of the story, and may digress into the past later on in
the poem.
There are many journeys into the underworld.
There are grand battle-scenes punctuated by extended similes, ambitious analogies that stretch the
imagination but strive for literary glory.
Many will feature the might of armies in long digressions featuring weaponry and war games.
Here is a list of 20 of the greatest Epic poems in the tradition:

1. The Epic of Gilgamesh (~2000 BCE)


It is not surprising that even the oldest known work of literature in the world is an epic poem written on
the grandest of scales. Based on the actual Assyrian king, Gilgamesh confronts many of the themes that
Homer will tackle in his epic poetry: the human/deity divide, mortality, seduction, legacy. As a young
god-king in the poem, Gilgameshs arrogant practices trouble the populace until Enkidu, a wildman
created by a goddess, challenges the monarchs power. Although it was written about 4000 years ago,
critics have argued that it is a particularly humanistic work, as the demi-gods desire adventure and
pleasure over ruthless destruction.
2.The Homeric Poems The Iliad (~800 BCE)
Few details are known about who Homer actually was, but the poets (or poets) identity is surely
peripheral compared to the impact these two texts have had on Western Civilization. Sparked by the
taking of Helen from Sparta, the Greeks, lead by Achilles, advance towards Troy to destroy their
adversary. While there is some involvement from the gods, it is again the human factor that is much
more significant, as the leaders fateful spar with Hector is both a celebration of military heroism and a
mournful ode to the losses of battle. Many common phrases have their origin in this poem, including the
heros vulnerable Achilles Heel, as well as the famous symbol of deception, the trojan horse, the
receptacle used to bring the soldiers into the Trojan stronghold.
3. The Homeric Poems The Odyssey (~800 BCE)
The Odyssey, on the other hand, follows the warrior Odysseus as he tries to find his way home from
Troy across the Peloponnesian sea. Not only must he fend off the malevolence of gods and the
seduction of Calypso, but he must also get home before the suitors coerce his wife into marriage. As the
basis for countless works that have followed it, many of the narrative and poetic devices employed in
the poem have gone on to influence what we now consider to be Western Literature.

4. The Mahabharata (350 BCE)


The great Indian epic is one of the longest pieces of literature of all time, but its exhausting length has
not stopped it from being a pivotal literary text in the formation of Hindu identity. Narrated by the sage
Vyasa, the 220,000 line poem follows a human incarnation of the god Vishnu as two dynasties fight for
supremacy in the mythical Elephant City. Not only does the poem itself contain another seminal Hindu
text, The Bhagavad Gita, but its panoramic view of everything from spirituality to morality have had an
impact on Indian society for thousands of years.

5. Virgil The Aeneid The Aeneid (19 BCE)


Written at the height emperor Augustines reign, The Aeneid soon became the great Roman epic, the
creation story of what was at that time the most mighty empire in the world. Starting off where the Iliad
ends, the poem describes Aeneas travel from Troy to Carthage, where he has a brief relationship with
Queen Dido. After he abandons her, he travels to Italy to ward off enemies and found Rome. Although
he is not as passionate as Dido (she commits suicide in heartbroken misery), his stoic attitude towards
his national duty speaks to the nationalistic pride Augustine attempted to impart upon his people.

6. Ovid - Metamorphoses (8 AD)


Ovids epic does not contain as much bloodshed and travel as Homers and Virgils, but his 15-part poem
contains the elevated language of the epic. Written in epic dactylic hexameter (six long syllables
staggered by shorter ones), the poem is less of a confirmation of myth as much as a retelling of it. While
Virgil preached a certain inexorable push towards Roman supremacy, Ovids reconfiguration of the
Greek and (slightly different) Roman myths emphasize how gods change to men. Some of the selections
include the story of Pygmalionthe sculptor who falls in love with his statue, as well as the unforgettable
transformation of Daphne into a tree while escaping a malicious suitor. It sought to deflate the hifalutin
air surrounding myth while also educating the public.

7. Firdawsi The Shahnameh (11th century)


One thing that the great Iranian epic has in common with the ancients is a sense of nostalgia from a lost
past. Also known as The Book of Kings, The Shahnameh looks back at the old Zoroastrian traditions in
the country while chronicling the entire history of the Persian Empire from its Eurasian reign to its
demise in the Muslim conquests of the 7th century. While this may seem more historical than poetic,
Firdawsi drives the work forward by including vivid accounts of political intrigue and betrayal.

8. Beowulf (~8th-11th century CE)


Some may know Beowulf as Britains national epic, but it is in fact celebrated as a national text in most
Nordic countries. Purportedly the strongest man that ever lived, Beowulf is hired by Hrothgar to protect
his domain from a grotesque swamp creature, Grendel. Not only does he vanquish him, but he also
confronts his mother, various sea creatures a terrifying fire-breathing dragon. The poem was at first
lauded for its fantastical elements, but further criticism revived its more important cultural implications
that the Kingdoms lining the North Sea were no longer joining forces to fend off outsiders, but were
rather turning on each other, often for petty reasons.
9. The Nibelungenlied (13th century)
This fragmented collection of several thousand stanzas was only rediscovered several centuries after it
was written, but this poems scale is so grand that it helped revive Teutonic mythology in Germany.
About the slow but inevitable decline of the Burgundian people of the North Atlantic, the majority of the
poem follows Siegfried, an Achilles-like figure who fights dragons, conquers Nibelungenland and uses his

invisibility cloak to defeat enemies. 19th century composer Richard Wagner would later use material
from this poem to produce his masterpiece The Ring-Cycle, though later German National Socialists
would use it to propagate erroneous assertions about a Teutonic race.

10. The Song of Roland (11th-12th century)


As Western Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, Heroic Poetry combined chivalric lore with elevated
verse to create many ambitiously-crafted works that reinforced the myth of the knight in shining armor.
Le Chanson de Roland, as it was known, tells the story of the 8th century battles between the
conquering muslims and the defending Franks as they vie for position in Iberia and the Pyrenees. The
poem reinforced many of the knightly virtuesgallantry and martyrdom, to name a few, and not until
the arrival of Cervantes Don Quixote would mark a gradual deflation of this genres popularity.
11. The Saga of Grettir the Strong (The Icelandic Sagas) (13th-14th century)
The Icelandic Sagas are a collection of dozens of mythological prose histories centered around the Viking
diaspora of the 10th-11th centuries. One of the most striking examples of these is the Saga of Grettir
The Strong, about a powerful outlaw who fends off many enemies before his quick temper and
overbearing strength prompts his slow decline. Not only is this a richly-described representation of the
difficulties of Nordic life, but like Beowulf, it is also a time capsule marking Northern Europes eventual
shift from paganism to Christianity.
12. Ludovico Ariosto Orlando Furioso (1532)
Orlando continues the trend of heroic verse begun by Roland with this more fantastical interpretation of
the battles between the Franks and the invading Saracens. Furioso is a valiant warrior charged to save
his people, but he is sidetracked by a bout of madness caused by the seductions of Angelica. Just like
Virgils Aeneid, Orlando Furioso juxtaposes valiant duty with passionate love, but it also romanticizes
love by comparing it to a type of identity-subverting madness. Ariostos poem, however, recognizes that
the passions are a weakness no knight should dabble with, and it always goes back to the importance of
duty before anything else.
13. Dante The Divine Comedy (1308-1321)
T.S. Eliot bestowed unequivocal praise upon Dantes masterpiece, calling it the highest point that
poetry has ever reached or ever can reach. Just as Virgil started off where The Iliad ended, Dante takes
Virgil along in his journey through the depth of sin in the first part of the poem, The Inferno. After
funnelling through the seven, increasingly-sinful layers of Hell, he begins his ascent through The
Purgatorio (Part 2) all the way to The Paradiso (Part 3). Deeply personal but cosmological in scope, the
poem helped promote Italian vernacular in a time when the Latinate church reigned over his home
country. It is now considered the greatest work of medieval poetry, sublimely connecting contemporary
European thought with the then-untapped trove of Classical thought.
14. Luis de Camons The Lusiads (1572)
Before war movies could use flag-bearing ad nauseam to propagate the enduring might of nations, Epic
poetry served as a useful tool for empires trying to make a name for themselves. Telling the story of
famed explorer Vasco de Gama, The Lusiads is the great Portuguese Epic, written at the height of their
intercontinental imperialism. However, Camons masterpiece would go beyond the adventures, battles
and romance to hint at a certain weariness with the conquering mentality of the European nations,
sublimely describing the proverbial Saudade the explorers continually suffered from.
15. Edmund Spenser The Faerie Queen (1590)
Drawing from many of the previous sources on this list, Spenser modeled his epic after the works of
Virgil, Ariosto, as well as the philosophy of Aristotle and Cicero. About a knight seeking the hand of the
virginal and veracious Una, Spenser tries to connect Queen Elizabeth to the most famous of all British
ancestors, King Arthur. The poem was well received by the throne at the time, but the poets unique

verse form is so enshrouded in ambiguity that fewincluding Spenser himselfhave given clear answers
to its more cryptic passages.
16. John Milton Paradise Lost (1667)
Colloquially known as the great Protestant Epic, Milton retells both the story of the fall of Lucifer (Satan)
in heaven and The fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The onset of blindness didnt stop him
from justifying the ways of God to men in this work, depicting Satan as an immensely-complex figure
in the midst of a brutal war with God in the heavens. However, Milton successfully employs many of the
Epic devices first introduced by Homer, including the invocation of the muse, an extensive amount of
similes and a series of descriptions of heavenly war games.
17. Alexander Pope The Rape of the Lock (1714)
The Rape of the Lock is perhaps one of the most hilarious poetic satires in English literature. Pope,
however, uses the many of the aforementioned devices of Epic poetry to inflate the pointless uproar
caused by an actual quarrel between two London families in this tale about a cut lock of hair.
Considering the breadth of his cataloguing, the extravagant descriptions of card-playing, as well as the
ridiculous journey into the Cave of Spleen (his own underworld), it is difficult to argue that it doesnt
belong with the more serious works in this list.
18. Epic of Manas (Published in 1792 Actual Date Unknown)
The small Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan may not be well-known on the International stage for
their literature, but the sheer immensity of this Epic poem is staggering. Considered one of the longest
works of poetry in the world, it tells the story of the hero Manas, a kind of figurehead for the warring
Kyrgyzs of yesteryear. Recited by traditional manaschi poets, Manas is a cultural icon that has lent its
name to many of the countrys most significant institutions.
19. Lord Byron Don Juan (1819)
Popes mock-epic wasnt the only work to satirize the elevated stature of heroic verse. Byron, who
always had a taste for extravagant presentation, uses the elements of Epic Poetry to retell the story of
the infamous womanizer with with a particular reversal: instead of being the seducer, he actually gets
seduced by the women he is interested in. At first derided by critics as smutty, public opinion soon
changed when readers realized that the 16,000 line poem included the masterful use of Byrons
signature ottava rima.

20. Ezra Pound The Cantos (1915-1962)


Pounds Cantos is perhaps the most divisive work of the 20th century. Hailed as a masterpiece by some
and wholly incoherent by others, it did not help that their initial success collided with his political views,
which culminated in various fascist outpourings on Italian radio during the Second World War.
Nevertheless, Pound attempts to connect dozens of classical works with modern times, including-butnot-limited-to The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Sapphic poems and even the writings of Confucius.
Encyclopedic but scattered, you can see why their survival has largely been maintained by scholarly
study and not public approval.

Top 100 poems

A Birthday Poem by Ted Kooser

A Dream Within A Dream by Edgar Allan Poe

A Girl by Ezra Pound

A Poet To His Beloved by William Butler Yeats

A Poison Tree by William Blake

A pretty a day by E. E. Cummings

A Word to Husbands by Ogden Nash

All the World's a Stage by William Shakespeare

America by Allen Ginsberg

And The Moon And The Stars And The World by Charles Bukowski

As Soon as Fred Gets Out of Bed by Jack Prelutsky

Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio by James Wright

Be Glad Your Nose is on Your Face by Jack Prelutsky

Bear In There by Shel Silverstein

Birches by Robert Frost

Brown Penny by William Butler Yeats

By An Evolutionist by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Daddy by Sylvia Plath

Deaths And Entrances by Dylan Thomas

Dedication by Robert Louis Stevenson

Digging by Seamus Heaney

Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas

Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold

Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes

During Wind And Rain by Thomas Hardy

Epithalamion by e.e. cummings

Fast rode the knight by Stephen Crane

Filling Station by Elizabeth Bishop

Frost At Midnight by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Funeral Blues by W. H. Auden

Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti

Happiness by Raymond Carver

I Cannot Live With You by Emily Dickinson

I carry your heart with me by E. E. Cummings

I know why the caged bird sings by Maya Angelou

I Taught Myself To Live Simply by Anna Akhmatova

I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud by William Wordsworth

If those I loved were lost by Emily Dickinson

If You Forget Me by Pablo Neruda

If You Have Seen by Thomas Moore

In Arthur's House by William Morris

Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes

Life is fine by Langston Hughes

Mending Wall by Robert Frost

Messy Room by Shel Silverstein

No Second Troy by William Butler Yeats

O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman

One Hundred and Three by Henry Lawson

Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou

Romance by Edgar Allan Poe

Seeker Of Truth by E. E. Cummings

Seven Ages Of Man by William Shakespeare

Sick by Shel Silverstein

Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

Success Is Counted Sweetest by Emily Dickinson

The Blessed Damozel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Broken Heart by William Barnes

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Lord Alfred Tennyson

The Dole of the King's Daughter by Oscar Wilde

The Fairy Temple; Or, Oberon's Chapel by Robert Herrick

The Lady of the Lake (excerpt) by Sir Walter Scott

The Mother by Gwendolyn Brooks

The New Poetry Handbook by Mark Strand

The Poor Ghost by Christina Rossetti

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot

There is another sky by Emily Dickinson

Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden

Thy Days Are Done by Lord Byron

To A Mouse by Robert Burns

To My Wife - With A Copy Of My Poems by Oscar Wilde

To You by Walt Whitman

Touched by An Angel by Maya Angelou

Two In The Campagna by Robert Browning

Walking Around by Pablo Neruda

What Do Women Want? by Kim Addonizio

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

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