Narrative Poetry: Telling Stories Through Verse (2022)

Narrative poetry tells stories through verse. Like a novel or a short story, a narrative poem has plot, characters, and setting. Using a range of poetic techniques such as rhyme and meter, narrative poetry presents a series of events, often including action and dialogue.

In most cases, narrative poems have only one speaker—the narrator—who relates the entire story from beginning to end. For example, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" is narrated by a grieving man who, over the course of 18 stanzas, describes his mysterious confrontation with a raven and his descent into despair.

Key Takeaways: Narrative Poetry

  • Narrative poetry presents a series of events through action and dialogue.
  • Most narrative poems feature a single speaker: the narrator.
  • Traditional forms of narrative poetry include epics, ballads, and Arthurian romances.

Origins of Narrative Poetry

The earliest poetry was not written but spoken, recited, chanted, or sung. Poetic devices like rhythm, rhyme, and repetition made stories easier to memorize so they could be transported long distances and handed down through generations. Narrative poetry evolved from this oral tradition.

In nearly every part of the world, narrative poetry established a foundation for other literary forms. For example, among the highest achievements of ancient Greece are "The Iliad" and"The Odyssey," which have inspired artists and writers for more than 2,000 years.

Narrative poetry became an enduring literary tradition throughout the Western world. Composed in Old French, "Chansons de geste" ("songs of deeds") stimulated literary activity in medieval Europe. The German saga now known as the "Nibelungenlied" lives on in Richard Wagner's lavish opera series, "The Ring of the Nibelung" ("Der Ring des Nibelungen"). The Anglo Saxon narrative "Beowulf" has inspired modern-day books, movies, operas, and even computer games.

In the East, India produced two monumental Sanskrit narratives. The "Mahabharata" is the world's longest poem with over 100,000 couplets. The timeless "Ramayana" spreads Indian culture and ideas across Asia, influencing literature, performance, and architecture.

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Identifying Narrative Poetry

Narrative is one of three major categories of poetry (the other two being dramatic and lyric), and each type of poetry has distinct characteristics and functions. While lyric poems emphasize self-expression, narrative poems emphasize plot. Dramatic poetry, like Shakespeare's blank verse plays, is an extended stage production, usually with many different speakers.

However, the distinction between genres may blur as poets weave lyrical language into narrative poems. Similarly, a narrative poem might resemble dramatic poetry when the poet incorporates more than one narrator.

Therefore, the defining feature of narrative poetry is the narrative arc. From the epic tales of ancient Greece to 21st-century verse novels, the narrator moves through a chronology of events from challenge and conflict to a final resolution.

Types of Narrative Poems

Ancient and medieval narrative poems were most commonly epics. Written in a grandiose style, these epic narrative poems retold legends of virtuous heroes and powerful gods. Other traditional forms include Arthurian romances about knights and chivalry and ballads about love, heartbreak, and dramatic events.

However, narrative poetry is an ever-evolving art, and there are countless other ways to tell stories through verse. The following examples illustrate several different approaches to narrative poetry.

Example #1: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Song of Hiawatha"


"The Song of Hiawatha" by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow(1807–1882) narrates Native American legends in metrical verse that mimics the Finnish national epic, "The Kalevala." In turn, "The Kalevala" echoes early narratives such as "The Iliad," "Beowulf," and the "Nibelungenlied."

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Longfellow's long poem has all the elements of classical epic poetry: a noble hero, a doomed love, gods, magic, and folklore. Despite its sentimentality and cultural stereotypes, "The Song of Hiawatha" suggests the haunting rhythms of Native American chants and establishes a uniquely American mythology.

Example #2: Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Idylls of the King"

“I fain would follow love, if that could be;
I needs must follow death, who calls for me;
Call and I follow, I follow! let me die.”

An idyll is a narrative form that originated in ancient Greece, but this idyll is an Arthurian romance based on British legends. In a series of twelve blank verse poems, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) tells the story of King Arthur, his knights, and his tragic love for Guinevere. The book-length work is drawn from medieval writings by Sir Thomas Malory.

By writing about chivalry and courtly love, Tennyson allegorized behaviors and attitudes he saw in his own Victorian society. "Idylls of the King" elevates narrative poetry from story-telling to social commentary.

Example #3:Edna St. Vincent Millay, "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver"

“Son,” said my mother,

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When I was knee-high,

“You’ve need of clothes to cover you,

And not a rag have I.

“There’s nothing in the house

To make a boy breeches,

Nor shears to cut a cloth with

Nor thread to take stitches."

"The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver" tells the story of a mother's unconditional love. By the end of the poem, she dies weaving her child magical clothes from her harp. The mother's dialog is quoted by her son, who placidly accepts her sacrifice.

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American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950) cast the story as a ballad, a form that evolved from traditional folk music. The iambic meter and a predictable rhyme scheme of the poem create a sing-song rhythm that suggests child-like innocence.

Famously recited by country musician Johnny Cash, "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver" is both sentimental and disturbing. The narrative poem can be understood as a simple story about poverty or a complex commentary on the sacrifices women make to clothe men in the garbs of royalty. In 1923, Edna St. Vincent Millay won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection of the same title.

Story song ballads became an important part of the American folk song tradition of the 1960s. Popular examples include Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" and Pete Seeger's "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy."

Example #4: Anne Carson, "Autobiography of Red"

“…Small, red, and upright he waited,
gripping his new bookbag tight
in one hand and touching a lucky penny inside his coat pocket with the other,
while the first snows of winter
floated down on his eyelashes and covered the branches around him and silenced
all trace of the world.”

Canadian poet and translator Anne Carson (b. 1950) loosely based "Autobiography of Red" on an ancient Greek myth about a hero's battle with a red-winged monster. Writing in free verse, Carson recreated the monster as a moody boy who battles modern-day problems related to love and sexual identity.

Carson's book-length work belongs to a genre-jumping category known as the "verse novel." It shifts between description and dialogue and from poetry to prose as the story moves through layers of meaning.

Unlike long verse narratives from antiquity, novels in verse do not adhere to established forms. Russian author Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) used a complex rhyme scheme and an unconventional meter for his verse novel, "Eugene Onegin," and English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861) composed "Aurora Leigh" in blank verse. Also writing in blank verse, Robert Browning (1812–1889) composed his novel-length "The Ring and the Book" from a series of monologues spoken by different narrators.

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Vivid language and simple stories have made book-length narrative poetry a popular trend in young adult publishing. Jacqueline Woodson's National Book Award-winning "Brown Girl Dreaming" describes her childhood as an African American growing up in the American South. Other best selling verse novels include "The Crossover" by Kwame Alexander and the "Crank" trilogy by Ellen Hopkins.


  • Addison, Catherine. "The Verse Novel as Genre: Contradiction or Hybrid?" Style. Vol. 43, No. 4 Winter 2009, pp. 539-562.
  • Carson, Anne. Autobiography of Red.Random House, Vintage Contemporaries. March 2013.
  • Clark, Kevin. "Time, Story, and Lyric in Contemporary Poetry." The Georgia Review. 5 March 2014.
  • Longfellow, Henry W. The Song of Hiawatha. Maine Historical Society.
  • Tennyson, Alfred, Lord. Idylls of the King. The Camelot Project.University of Rochester.


What is the central idea of the narrative poetry telling stories through verse? ›

Narrative poetry tells stories through verse. Like a novel or a short story, a narrative poem has plot, characters and setting. Using a range of poetic techniques such as rhyme and meter, narrative poetry presents a series of events, often including action and dialogue.

What are the characteristics of narrative poetry? ›

A narrative poem is a longer form of poetry that tells an entire story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Narrative poems contain all of the elements of a fully developed story, including characters, plot, conflict, and resolution. These poems are typically told by just one narrator or speaker.

What is narrative poetry and example? ›

In most cases, narrative poems have only one speaker—the narrator—who relates the entire story from beginning to end. For example, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" is narrated by a grieving man who, over the course of 18 stanzas, describes his mysterious confrontation with a raven and his descent into despair.

Regarded as one of Canada’s finest living writers, Margaret Atwood is a poet, novelist, story writer, essayist, and environmental activist. Her books have received critical acclaim in the United States, Europe, and her native Canada, and she has received numerous literary awards, including the…

Lorrie Moore, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called The Robber Bride “Atwood’s funniest and most companionable book in years,” adding that its author “retains her gift for observing, in poetry, the minutiae specific to the physical and emotional lives of her characters.” Alias Grace represents Atwood’s first venture into historical fiction, but the book has much in common with her other works in its contemplation of “the shifting notions of women’s moral nature” and “the exercise of power between men and women,” wrote Maclean’s contributor Diane Turbide.. Bodily Harm, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1981, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1982, reprinted, Anchor Press (New York, NY), 1998.. Dancing Girls and Other Stories, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1977, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1982, reprinted, Anchor Press (New York, NY), 1998.. Maclean's, January 15, 1979, review of Two-Headed Poems, p. 50; October 15, 1979, review of Life Before Man, p. 66; March 30, 1981, Mark Able, review of True Stories, p. 52; September 16, 1991, John Bemrose, review of Wilderness Tips and Other Stories, p. 58; October 5, 1992, John Bemrose, review of Good Bones, p. 60; October 4, 1993, Judith Timson, review of The Robber Bride, p. 55; February 6, 1995, John Bemrose, review of Morning in the Burned House, p. 85; September 23, 1996, Diane Turbide, "Amazing Atwood," pp.. New York Times Book Review, February 3, 1980, Marilyn French, review of Life Before Man, p. 1; February 9, 1986, Mary McCarthy, review of The Handmaid's Tale, p. 1; October 31, 1993, Lorrie Moore, review of The Robber Bride, pp.

An epic is a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.

Epic poems are also considered to be the first form of poetry.. Take, for example, Gilgamesh from the oldest recorded epic, the Epic of Gilgamesh.. The form of the epic plays straight into the major themes of the Epic of Gilgamesh as it is through this poem that the ancient king found eternal life.. The gods appear in this epic poem in the same way humans do.. One of the most widely read epics today, Paradise Lost, tells the story of Satan’s fall from Heaven, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and Satan’s attempts to fight a war against the angels remaining in Heaven.. He’s led on this journey by Virgil, the poet responsible for the epic poem (that continues the story of the Trojans after the conclusion of the Iliad ),the Aeneid.. What is an example of an epic poem?. Poems like The Odyssey and The Iliad as both epic poems.. What are the characteristics of an epic poem?

Few literary genres allow for experimentation quite as easily as prose poetry. Blending the techniques of prose with the emotion and lyricism of poetry, the best prose poems uncover subconscious thought with searing originality. Poets looking to break free from form, and prose writers seeking new means of expression, will absolutely find creative freedom in prose poetry. So, what is a

Blending the techniques of prose with the emotion and lyricism of poetry , the best prose poems uncover subconscious thought with searing originality.. Poets looking to break free from form, and prose writers seeking new means of expression, will absolutely find creative freedom in prose poetry.. This article discusses the history of the form, with prose poetry examples and a discussion of how to write a prose poem.. (3) In one of the early prose poem anthologies, Michael Benedkt writes, “It is a genre of poetry, self consciously written in prose, and characterized by the intense use of virtually all the devices of poetry.. . .. (4) A contemporary critic Stephen Fredman—who has written extensively about language poetry—calls it “poet’s prose.” He objects to the above definitions of the prose poem because they rely too heavily on Baudelaire’s description of a prose poem.. Novels may be written in ‘prose’; but in the beginning no books were written in prose, they were printed in prose, because ‘prose’ conveys an illusion of a common-sensical logical order.. If you want to read a long thoughtful exploration on the definition of a prose poem, I suggest reading Michael Deville’s book, The American Prose Poem .. The best prose poems incorporate the above features of prose poetry, and they also delve deeper into the speaker’s psyche, revealing powerful thoughts and feelings.. Rather than deliberating over line breaks, rhyme schemes, or “sounding poetic,” the prose poet merely needs to write prose, poetically.. Refer back to John Simon’s prose poetry definition, which argues that the genre is “a highly conscious (even self-conscious) art form.” Stream of consciousness requires practice and research, but with mastery, you can easily identify threads of thought that lend themselves to prose poems.. Barbara Henning’s course Poetic Prose: The Prose Poem helps writers experiment their way through prose poetry.. The assignments, backgrounds and prose poetry examples offered provide an introduction to the prose poem and to some of the poetic movements in modern and contemporary off-center poetry, such as imagism, surrealism, objectivism, the New York School, Language writing, etc.

One of the most famous Victorian women writers, and a prolific poet, Charlotte Brontë is best known for her novels, including Jane Eyre (1847), her most popular. Like her contemporary Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Brontë experimented with the poetic forms that became the characteristic modes of the…

One of the most famous Victorian women writers, and a prolific poet, Charlotte Brontë is best known for her novels, including Jane Eyre (1847), her most popular.. Brontë’s decision to abandon poetry for novel writing exemplifies the dramatic shift in literary tastes and the marketability of literary genres—from poetry to prose fiction—that occurred in the 1830s and 1840s.. Her experience as a poet thus reflects the dominant trends in early Victorian literary culture and demonstrates her centrality to the history of 19th-century literature.. His rise from modest beginnings can be attributed largely to his considerable talent, hard work, and steady ambition—qualities his daughter Charlotte clearly inherited.. Though the loss of their mother certainly made a difference in the lives of all the Brontë children, the younger ones—Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne—seem not to have been seriously affected by her death.. Charlotte’s eldest sister, Maria, appears to have been especially influential in the creative development of her siblings.. Under the tutelage of her father and at the encouragement of Maria, Charlotte, like her younger brother and sisters, was attracted to the literary life at an early age.. Charlotte Brontë’s earliest experience with school life could not have made teaching seem an attractive career.. Patrick Brontë was not informed of his eldest daughter’s condition until February 1825, two months after Maria began to show symptoms; when he saw her, he immediately withdrew her from the school and she died at home in early May.. Also, the influence of the popular Thomas Moore can be seen in Brontë’s many poems written as songs.. Although both young women made considerable academic progress in Brussels and were praised for their success, neither ever felt entirely comfortable there, and when they went back to Haworth for Aunt Branwell’s funeral in November 1842, Emily chose not to return to Brussels.. To her Romantic insistence on the spontaneity of poetic “genius, [which] produces without work,” Heger wrote extensive marginal notes, arguing for the neoclassical values of control, learning, and imitation.. Unlike her sisters’ contributions, nearly all of Charlotte Brontë’s poems in the 1846 volume are reworkings of much earlier compositions, mostly from the prolific period of 1837–1838, which she revised expressly for publication in this volume.

Scholars have investigated the issue for centuries, but many questions persist.

The Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, narrates the history of the people of Israel over about a millennium, beginning with God’s creation of the world and humankind, and contains the stories, laws and moral lessons that form the basis of religious life for both Jews and Christians.. A volume of the Talmud, the collection of Jewish laws recorded between the 3rd and 5th centuries A.D., dealt with this inconsistency by explaining that Joshua (Moses’ successor as leader of the Israelites) likely wrote the verses about Moses’ death.. By the time the Enlightenment began in the 17th century, most religious scholars were more seriously questioning the idea of Moses’ authorship, as well as the idea that the Bible could possibly have been the work of any single author.. To explain the Bible’s contradictions, repetitions and general idiosyncrasies, most scholars today agree that the stories and laws it contains were communicated orally, through prose and poetry, over centuries.. Of the three major blocks of source material that scholars agree comprise the Bible’s first five books, the first was believed to have been written by a group of priests, or priestly authors, whose work scholars designate as “P.” A second block of source material is known as “D”—for Deuteronomist, meaning the author(s) of the vast majority of the book of Deuteronomy.. Just as the Old Testament chronicles the story of the Israelites in the millennium or so leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ, the New Testament records Jesus’s life, from his birth and teachings to his death and later resurrection, a narrative that forms the fundamental basis of Christianity.. But for more than a century, scholars have generally agreed that the Gospels, like many of the books of the New Testament, were not actually written by the people to whom they are attributed.. “Names are attached to the titles of the Gospels (‘the Gospel according to Matthew’),” writes Bible scholar Bart Ehrman in his book Jesus, Interrupted .. Traditionally, 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament were attributed to Paul the Apostle , who famously converted to Christianity after meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus and wrote a series of letters that helped spread the faith throughout the Mediterranean world.


1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story | TED
2. Narrative Poems
(Becky Moore)
3. Narrative Poetry For Kids
(The Touring Teacher)
4. Aiya | Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam Finals 2019
(Youth Speaks)
5. Telling Stories featuring Josephine Neill
(John Hudson)
6. Tell me about yourself -- stories through poetry: Alex Dang at TEDxUOregon
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