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Narrative Poetry: Types, History, and Use

By Gary R. Hess. Category: Poetry

The three main types of poetry are narrative, lyrical and dramatic. The narrative poem can be described simply as a poem with a plot. It may be short or long or simple or complex. The only part which matters is that it tells a story which is often nondramatic and holds an objective regular scheme and meter. The four main types of narrative poems are ballad, epic, idyll, and lay.

Find out more about the three types of poetry.

The Four Types of Narratives

Ballad
A poem similar to a folk tale which uses a repeated refrain. This means that every few stanzas a portion of the poem is repeated, much like a song.
Epic
A long, serious poem which tells the story of a hero. Think of stories like Odyssey or Ben-Hur.
Idyll
A poem about either an idolized country scene or about the heroes of yesteryear. This could also include the story of Odyssey, except for different reasons. An idyll speaks of someone or something in a way that it should be idolized. For example, today many stories of Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr. could be written about in an idyll. However, an even better example could be George Washington.
Lay
A long poem which was sung by medieval minstrels. The long poems generally were about the news of the day or historical facts they wished to be passed along throughout the countryside.

History and Use of Narratives

A narrative may be an entire novel or a simple short story. Some narratives are divided into interrelated groups like the Canterbury Tales. Some narratives are larger and made up of both prose and poetic interludes; an example of this type of narrative is The Cremation of Sam McGee.

Many narrative poems are performance pieces. They hold oral traditions in which poetry was used as a way of memorization. The meter, alliteration, and kennings helps bards better remember the stories which were used to tell of traditions, the happiness of life, and life's deepest troubles.

The epic narrative is perhaps one of the single most important parts of the narrative genre. An epic is a long narrative which contains details of heroic deeds and events significant to specific cultures or nations. The epic poem has been written for at least as long as the time of Homer--who wrote the epics Iliad and Odyssey. Today, epics are used to tell imaginative and re-imaged heroic stories.

Without narrative poetry, many of the stories we love, like Robin Hood and the story of Troy, may not exist today. History and much of what we know about ancient life, politics, and warfare would only be left to our imagination.