When you think about it, it makes sense that poetry is one of the oldest forms of literature. Poetry at its core is whatever it wants to be; it can be rigorous and contained in form while others float mindlessly around the page. Some poems can be chapters long while others are two lines; nonetheless, both can be meaningful.
When I refer to two lines of poetry, I am referencing much more modern works. Thousands and thousands of years ago, poetry was written in a tremendously long form known as epic poetry. This kind of poetry explores extraordinary adventures and it can involve deities and monsters.
I have been lucky enough to read all of these epics in my high school and college classes. They are certainly strenuous to read, but their stories are worth knowing.
Read on to learn about these three famous epic poems!
by Seamus Heaney
Beowulf, a Germanic heroic legend, was originally written in Old English. The novel I have attached, and the version I personally read, has Old English on one side and the English translation on the other. It is fascinating to look at them side by side and see just how much language has evolved.
We are not certain when this epic poem was originally written, but it is thought to be copied around the 11th century. This story would have been copied because it is speculated that it was transmitted orally, meaning poets told the tale verbally and at one point it was written down.
The story follows Beowulf, the hero of the Geats tribe in what we now know as southern Sweden. I don’t want to spoil the story, but know that he slays monsters and fights for his tribe and his honor.
If you enjoy this story, be sure to check out Grendel. It is a 1971 retelling of Beowulf and the monster Grendel!
The Odyssey is a famous and ancient Greek epic poem, and one of my favorites. It was written around the 8th century BC and is split into a whopping twenty-four books. It follows the story of the Greek hero Odysseus, king of Ithaca, as he journeys home after the Trojan War. The Trojan War was a ten-year war and Odysseus’ journey home took an additional ten years.
This is quite the story; twenty years away from home, fighting for his life and desperate to return to Ithaca. In his ten-year journey, which this epic covers in detail, we witness monsters, death, and many of the deities. This is a story any mythology lover would enjoy.
If you enjoy this Greek epic, be sure to also check out Homer’s Iliad.
The Canterbury Tales
By Geoffrey Chaucer
The Canterbury Tales is 17,000 lines of poetry split into twenty-four stories, all written in Middle English. This epic poem from 1400 is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. I, myself, have experienced Chaucer’s arduous writing and exorbitant amount of detail. Though this epic can be boring at times, the best part is you can just read the stories of the characters you like the most. Yes, this epic has a plot, but some of the tales are much more interesting the others.
With that being said, The Canterbury Tales follows 30 pilgrims of many different backgrounds as they travel from the Tabard Inn in Southward to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury. On their journey, the Host, Harry Bailey, suggests that each pilgrim will tell two stories to Canterbury and two on the way back. After all the stories have been told, he will judge who the best storyteller is and they will receive a meal at his tavern.
However, this epic poem is known to be unfinished because Chaucer died before its completion. Only twenty-four stories are in the text; meaning not even all the characters received one story.
All three of these epics set the groundwork for poetry to come. I think it’s incredible that we can pick up these poems and feel so immersed in the text and language that it feels like we are transported back to their time periods!
Click here to read more about poetry from us here at Bookstr!