A narrative poem is a type of poem which tells a story. It uses the poetic techniques you might normally find in a poem (such as rhyme, rhythm, similes, and metaphors) to create a narrative.

Narrative poems are typically longer than other forms of poetry, telling an overarching story like a novel. They have a plot, characters, and a setting like a novel.

Most narrative poems have only a single speaker: the narrator.

Types of narrative poetry

There are various types of narrative poetry, but the most traditional forms are:

  • Epics tell the legends of heroes and gods, most commonly from Ancient Greek mythology.
  • Ballads — This narrative poem is traditionally about dramatic events involving love and heartbreak.
  • Arthurian romances — These poems are all about knights and chivalry in medieval times, and they’re commonly associated with King Arthur.

The origins of narrative poetry

You might be surprised to hear that some of the earliest versions of poetry were narrative poems!

In the past, stories weren’t written down but spoken aloud, recited, or sung. Rhymes, repetition, rhythm, and meter made it easier for people to remember long and complex stories and histories, so they were told in the form of what we would today call poetry.

The  Iliad and the Odyssey from Ancient Greece are the most famous examples. These epics were originally recited orally and written down later.

Narrative poetry has evolved from this tradition.

Examples of narrative poetry

Narrative poems have played a huge part in literature over the past 2000 years. Here are just a few examples of narrative poetry:

The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe

The Raven is probably Poe’s most famous poem. It follows a clear narrative — the speaker hears a knock at his door at night, discovers it’s a raven, and then the raven refuses to leave. The narrative then follows the speaker’s descent into madness.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly, there came a tapping,

As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—

Only this and nothing more.”

The poem uses rhyme and repetition (‘napping,’ ‘rapping,’ and ‘tapping’), and each stanza ends with the same word — ‘more.’ While these techniques make it easier to follow the poem’s rhythm and remember it by heart, they also emphasize something essential to the narrative, which is the raven’s incessant tapping and rapping.

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Tennyson’s narrative poem retells the charge of the British light cavalry, which Lord Cardigan led against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War.

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns!” he said.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

There is a lot of repetition and rhyme in this poem. Even in the first stanza, ‘valley of death’ is repeated, and so is ‘Rode the six hundred’ — it’s already setting the scene for a brutal battle, just as a story written in prose form would.

La Belle Dame sans Merci by John Keats

Keats’ ballad tells the story of a knight who falls for the charm of a woman who appears to be more ‘fairy’ than human. He follows her, but then he’s left abandoned on a chilly hillside.

I met a lady in the meads,

Full beautiful—a faery’s child,

Her hair was long; her foot was light,

And her eyes were wild.

Again, the poem follows a clear rhyme scheme and meter to tell its story. It also gives us an idea of the setting — the meadow — and introduces us to a character, the lady.

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