What Are the Different Kinds of Narrative Poetry?

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What Are the Different Kinds of Narrative Poetry?
Narrative poetry includes Arthurian stories of chivalry. (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Narrative poetry is a genre of poetry that tells a story and has a plot. Narrative poems commonly feature characters and tell the story of an event. Historically, narrative poems were part of an oral tradition of poems telling the history of events that were passed down through generations. Usually narrative poems follow a certain rhyme scheme and meter. Types of narrative poems include ballads, epics, lays and idylls.

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A ballad is a poem often about love or loss, sometimes set to music. The ballad stanza is traditionally a quatrain (four lines) of iambic trimeter and the rhyme scheme is a, b, c, b. An example of a ballad is the medieval story of Sir Patrick Spens, a sailor who was lost at sea: "O where will I get a good sailor / Will take my helm in hand, / Till I get up to the tall topmast / To see if I can spy land?" // "O here am I, a sailor good, / Will take the helm in hand, / Till you go up to the tall topmast, / But I fear you'll ne'er spy land." These verses show the example of the ballad stanza and rhyme scheme, and also the repetitive elements characteristically found in ballads.


Epic poems are very long and have serious subject matter about wars or long journeys, such as "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" by Homer. Epic poems include a heroic figure, and the poem is structured in heroic couplets, which are two rhymed lines of iambic pentameter. The plot of epic poems usually covers vast settings and contains many characters. The opening lines of "The Odyssey" summarise the narrative about Odysseus that will follow in the epic 12,000-line poem: "Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns / driven time and again off course, once he had plundered / the hallowed heights of Troy."


A lay is a lyrical type of narrative poem that is set to music and has varying meters and rhyme schemes. The themes of lays are similar to those of ballads; many deal with love or tragedy. The lay was popular in Medieval France but has still remained part of the narrative poetic tradition, being used by Sir Walter Scott in his poem "The Lay of the Last Minstrel".


Idylls are narrative poems that tell stories of everyday life, limited to a small and intimate world. Roman poets would write pastoral poems featuring scenes of rustic life; the form was later used again by Victorian poets such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his Arthurian narrative poem cycle, "The Idylls of the King." These poems tell stories of King Arthur and his kingdom, and relate to the genre as they portray scenes and events from inside Arthur's court.

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