What is Narrative Poetry: ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW

what is narrative poetry cover image

There are a lot of ways in which you can express yourself poetically. While to the layman, poems might be just carefully arranged sentences that rhyme at the end, poetry is far more complicated than that. The structure and way a poem is crafted have different ways of penetrating your understanding and leaving an impression on you. Out of the hundreds of different poetry styles, narrative poetry is perhaps the oldest.

So what is narrative poetry and what makes it such a strong opponent of time’s test? How has this form of poetry survived for so long? This article will answer all these questions, along with what are the different types of narrative poetry along with examples and how to write one yourself. Let’s get started. 

What is Narrative Poetry

As the name implies, a narrative poem is a poem that contains a linear narrative. It is a story encapsulated in a poem. Every poem either tells a story or mostly expresses emotions. It is usually what the poet feels about a subject or what he/she wants to express in poetic language. A narrative poem is when there’s a story that progresses linearly.

So a narrative poem could be a tale about a hero, or about the struggle of some person. Any story that can be told in a rhythmic meter and pattern is called a narrative poem. This “storytelling” can be done in multiple ways. For example, a narrative poem can be in the form of a dialogue, a monologue, or just plain storytelling in the third person. 

A narrative poem has everything a story has; plot, protagonist, antagonist, character development, etc. The rhyme pattern and structure of narrative poems are not complex, usually with a rhyming pattern of ABAB. The one thing common about most narrative poems is that they are very long. For example, the epic Mahabharata, written in Sanskrit has 200,000 verse lines and almost 2 million words!

Types of Narrative Poetry

There could be many types of narrative poetry, and it is very hard to categorize every single one of them. But in general, with the type of story they tell, there are two or three types of narrative poetry. These are Epics, Ballads, and Freeform narrative poetry. Let’s see how they differ from each other. 

Epics

Epic poems are heroic poetry that tells a tale of a hero who fights against the odds, defeats the antagonist, and wins a battle, either literally or figuratively. These poems are written in grandiose style, with extraordinary characters, powerful plots with strong metaphors. As mentioned before, the epic Mahabharata is an example, along with other famous epic poems such as Homer’s The Iliad and Odyssey. These two epic poems are still read and studied. 

Epics are the poems that most commonly define narrative poems. These poems are long, and have a steady meter and structure, along with a proper plot that usually runs linearly. So it would introduce characters, and tell tales, some even with proper chapters. Variations are always present when it comes to any creative work, and that applies to epic poems as well. 

We would love to include an example of an epic poem, but that would make you keep scrolling for three to four days just to reach the end of it. That’s why, in a much more efficient way, here’s a link to the entire epic poem Odyssey by Homer. Read it after you are done with this article.

Ballads

Ballads are narrative poems that do not tell a heroic tale, fictional or non-fictional. Rather, these are tales told in a specific rhyming meter, often iambic trimeter or iambic tetrameter. There’s a well-defined structure, minimal use of pauses and breaks, and the plot is linear. You can call ballads the songs of medieval times. Ballads have the quality of narrative poems: It tells a story from one’s perspective, usually in first-person or third-person. 

When compared to movies, songs are very short. Similarly, ballads are also shorter than epic poems. Ballads are popular all around the world because of their easy verbal transmission. There’s one more quality of a ballad; most of them are often about love or a love story. 

A perfect example of a ballad would be the ever-famous Solitary Reaper by William Wordsworth. Take a look: 

Behold her, single in the field, 

Yon solitary Highland Lass! 

Reaping and singing by herself; 

Stop here, or gently pass! 

Alone she cuts and binds the grain, 

And sings a melancholy strain; 

O listen! for the Vale profound 

Is overflowing with the sound. 

No Nightingale did ever chaunt 

More welcome notes to weary bands 

Of travellers in some shady haunt, 

Among Arabian sands: 

A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard 

In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird, 

Breaking the silence of the seas 

Among the farthest Hebrides. 

Will no one tell me what she sings?— 

Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow 

For old, unhappy, far-off things, 

And battles long ago: 

Or is it some more humble lay, 

Familiar matter of to-day? 

Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain, 

That has been, and may be again? 

Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang 

As if her song could have no ending; 

I saw her singing at her work, 

And o’er the sickle bending;— 

I listened, motionless and still; 

And, as I mounted up the hill, 

The music in my heart I bore, 

Long after it was heard no more. 

Notice how this poem can be sung like a song, and it tells a tale about how the poet saw a beautiful girl and then goes on to describe the scene and feelings associated with it? It’s a narration about an incident with the rhyme scheme of ABAB, the most common rhyme scheme of narrative poems. 

Unclassified Narrative Poems 

Many poems cannot be classified into one group because all these narrative poems have the basic qualities of a narrative poem, but also are different in many ways. This is why they can be termed unclassified narrative poems. 

To unfold this class of narrative poems, we need to take one example. Let’s choose one of our (and probably yours too) favorite poems, The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. 

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 some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

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

            Only this and nothing more.”

    Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.

    Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow

    From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—

For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—

            Nameless here for evermore.

    And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;

    So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating

    “’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—

Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—

            This it is and nothing more.”

As you can see, the basic attributes of a narrative poem are here; the poem is told from the first-person perspective of the poet, Poe. He tells a story about the time he encountered a raven. The rhyming scheme seems consistent too, with ABAB at some point, but then extending further sometimes, making it ABAB BB. 

The theme of this poem is also mysterious, not at all romantic, and the plot is complicated. This isn’t a simple tale that is to be taken at face value. “The Raven” is a complicated tale that explores multiple themes, ideas, and emotions. But it has some qualities of a narrative poem and hence, finds a spot in this list.

What elements define narrative poetry?

The easiest way to find which is a narrative poem and which one is not is by looking at the elements that define narrative poetry. As mentioned above, a narrative poem tells a tale, it has a coherent plot that is often revealed from a first-person view or a third-person view. 

The rhyming scheme should also be simple with a rhyming pattern of ABAB and the meter should be either iambic tetrameter or iambic trimeter. So in summary, the elements that define narrative poetry are:

  • A coherent plot (mostly linear)
  • Iambic tetrameter or trimeter
  • The narration of the plot
  • Rhyming pattern of ABAB
  • Heroic tales/stories
  • Simple structure

How to Write a Narrative Poem? 

Perhaps the best way to start writing a poem is by choosing a narrative poem. If you are a beginner and want to get into poetry writing, practicing with narrative poems is the best way to learn about the structure, rhyming scheme, and other basics of poetry writing. 

To get started, all you need to do is think of a basic story. It would make it even easier if you choose to use an event of your life as the plot of the poem. Then all you need to do is follow the simple rhyme pattern of ABAB, and keep describing the story. Try ending the line with a word that you can rhyme. Do not focus much on the meter of the poem, just pay attention to the story and the rhyme. 

With practice and learning, you’ll soon be writing wonderful narrative poems easily. One frequently asked question that we get is “does a narrative poem have to rhyme”. The answer to this is yes, narrative poems rely heavily on rhyming, so it is important that narrative poems rhyme. Or else, they’re just stories.

Read Related Articles