An epic or heroic poem is:
A long narrative poem;
On a serious subject;
Written in a grand or elevated style;
Centered on a larger-than-life hero.
Epics also tend to have the following characteristics:
An opening in medias res;
An invocation to the Muse;
A concern with the fate of a nation or people;
A correspondingly large scale, often ranging around the world (and in Milton's case, beyond the earth and into heaven); The intervention of supernatural figures, who are interested in the outcome of the action (the system of gods, demons, angels, and such is often called machinery); Extended similes, generally called epic similes;
Long catalogues, whether of ships, characters, or places;
Extensive battle scenes;
A few stock episodes, including a visit to the underworld.
Homer wrote the oldest surviving epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, from around the eight century B.C. To be precise, change wrote to composed: Homer, even if there was a single individual called Homer, was probably illiterate, and probably composed orally. (There's a huge literature on this; you'll find a swell overview in Bernard Knox's introductory material in Robert Fagles's translation of the Iliad.) Virgil, although thoroughly literate, consciously imitated many of Homer's techniques, and produced the most famous epic poem of Augustan Rome, the Aeneid. Many of the characteristics of later epic derive from the quirks of oral composition. In both Greek and Latin, the most common epic meter was dactylic hexameter. That's a difficult meter to pull off in English, though; English epics aren't associated with any one meter, though most of them beginning with Spenser are in pentameter. Famous English epics include the Old English poem Beowulf (written in alliterative meter); in the Renaissance, Spenser's Faerie Queene (with its complicated Spenserian stanza) and Milton's Paradise Lost (in blank verse). In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, heroic couplets were...
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