Are these the best epic poems? Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Epic poetry has been a part of literature from the beginning, as the following selection of ten of the greatest epic poems demonstrate. Spanning nearly four millennia, each of these classic works of epic poetry tell us something about the human condition, the struggle to overcome the dark forces of the world, and the nature of heroism.
1. Anonymous, Epic of Gilgamesh.
Often referred to as the earliest great work of literature that has survived into the modern age, the Epic of Gilgamesh dates from nearly 4,000 years ago and nearly a whole millennium before Homer (see below). It was composed in ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and contains many of the features we encounter in later great epic poems: the quest motif (in the second half of the narrative, the hero, King Gilgamesh, goes in search of eternal life), what Christopher Booker calls the ‘overcoming the monster’ motif (Gilgamesh and his companion, the wild man named Enkidu, face down several beasts), and divine intervention in human affairs.
We recommend this edition: The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Classics)
2. Homer, The Iliad.
The first great epic poem in Western literature, the Iliad concerns the Trojan War between the Greeks (although they’re not referred to as such) and the Trojans, following the abduction of Helen of Troy by the Trojan prince Paris. (‘Ilium’ is another name for Troy.)
Surprisingly, a number of the most famous incidents from the myth of the Trojan War don’t appear in Homer’s poem: there’s no Trojan Horse, and Achilles’ heel isn’t the only vulnerable part of his body (at one point he’s wounded in the elbow). And the whole of the Iliad covers only a few weeks in the final stage of the war – and twenty-two of the twenty-four books which make up the poem cover the events of just a few days. This allows Homer to focus in detail on the individual characters in the war, from Achilles to Ajax, Agamemnon to Hector, Helen to Menelaus.
We recommend this edition: Penguin Classics Homer The Iliad
3. Homer, The Odyssey.
The character of Odysseus, or Ulysses in his Roman incarnation, looms large in modern literature: Tennyson wrote a dramatic monologue about his twilight years, while James Joyce used the narrative structure of the Odyssey as the rough basis for his modernist novel Ulysses (1922), which covers the events of one day in Dublin in 1904.
The thing which makes Odysseus such a distinctive character, and the Odyssey such fun to read, is his cunning: known as the ‘man of many wiles’, he outwits the Cyclops Polyphemus, finds a way of hearing the Sirens’ song and living to tell the tale, and manages to make his way home to his wife, Penelope, on Ithaca. One of the first, and greatest, epic poems in all of Western literature.
We recommend this edition: The Odyssey (Oxford World’s Classics)
4. Apollonius of Rhodes, The Argonautica.
Something of a ‘wild card’ in this list of the greatest epic poems, The Argonautica – sometimes known as ‘The Voyage of Argo’ or ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ – tells of Jason’s quest to find the Golden Fleece, as well as his complicated relationship with his wife, Medea. The romantic plot of this epic, written around the time of Alexander the Great, is credited with moving the epic poem in new directions, and inspired the love story of the next great epic on our list.
We recommend this edition: The Voyage of Argo
5. Virgil, The Aeneid.
For his great epic about the events leading to the founding of Rome, a poem written to flatter Augustus (at least according to Alexander Pope), Virgil took a character from the Greek story of the Trojan War, Aeneas, and told his story. Like Homer’s Odysseus, Aeneas wanders the Mediterranean after the end of the war, having a passionate romance with Dido, Queen of Carthage before heading to Rome where his descendant, Romulus, will later found the Italian city of that name.
We recommend this edition: Aeneid (Oxford World’s Classics)
6. Anonymous, Beowulf.
As we’ve discussed in our detailed summary of Beowulf, this poem chronicles the hero’s exploits, notably his slaying of the monster Grendel – actually only the first of three monsters Beowulf has to vanquish. Perfect fireside reading, and an archetypal work of English literature, composed when the notion of ‘England’ itself was only just beginning to emerge.
We recommend this edition: Beowulf: A Verse Translation (Norton Critical Editions)
7. Dante, The Divine Comedy.
Composed in the early fourteenth century, Dante’s Divine Comedy is a trilogy of poems charting the poet’s journey from hell (Inferno) through Purgatory (Purgatorio) to heaven (Paradiso), guided by his fellow poet and author of the Aeneid, Virgil.
Featuring lakes of filth and farting demons, it’s much more fun than its theological subject might suggest, and it influenced a whole raft of later poets, especially T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Among the more surprising details are farting demons and a lake of excrement – making Dante’s conception of hell all the more vivid and repulsive.
We recommend this edition: The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso (Penguin Classics)
Spenser completely only just over half of his projected plan for his vast epic poem, written in praise of Queen Elizabeth I and to offer a sort of mythology for England, with its use of Arthurian legend and Red-Cross Knights. The poem also extols a number of Christian virtues.
We recommend this edition: The Faerie Queene (Penguin Classics)
9. John Milton, Paradise Lost.
This is a long narrative poem, published in 1667, about the fall of Satan (from heaven; Satan is the great antihero and fallen angel of Milton’s poem) and the Fall of Man, when Adam and Eve go against God’s orders and eat the forbidden fruit. Among the oddest descriptions in John Milton’s blank-verse religious epic is the following passage, which is essentially about angels farting: ‘Tasting concoct, digest, assimilate, / And corporeal to incorporeal turn.’
Indeed, although it’s often viewed as a pious epic retelling of the Fall of Adam and Eve from the Book of Genesis, Milton’s depiction of God, and his portrayal of Satan as a seductive and charismatic villain, have led critics and poets to wonder whether Milton was – in William Blake’s phrase – ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it’.
We recommend this edition: Paradise Lost (Penguin Classics)
10. Ezra Pound, The Cantos.
How can a modern poet write an epic for the modern age? Ezra Pound spent the best part of fifty years trying to puzzle this out, and the result is what he himself described as a ‘ragbag’ – an unfinished 800-page epic whose technique includes juxtaposing unlikely historical figures (John Adams with Benito Mussolini, for instance) to suggest correlations and echoes, comparatively discussing shared myths, world religions, and whole historical epochs.
It’s baffling, frustrating, highly intellectual, and – in the case of the Pisan Cantos written in summer and autumn 1945 while Pound was detained by the US after the end of the Second World War – almost unbearably poignant and moving.
We recommend this edition: The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New Directions Books)
All ten of the classic epic poems mentioned above are by male poets (assuming that, pace Virginia Woolf, the ‘Anonymous’ authors of Gilgamesh and Beowulf were men). Are there any great epic poems written by women? We have compiled seven must-read epic poems by female poets in a separate post.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.