By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
When we think of poems, these days most people probably automatically think of lyric poems: usually quite short poems which describe the poet’s (or an imagined speaker’s) thoughts and feelings. But from the epic poems of Homer to the Border Ballads of the Middle Ages to notable contemporary examples, poetry has often been used to tell a story, too.
Below, we introduce ten of the most famous and celebrated narrative poems in English. We’ve decided to differentiate between epic poems (which we’ve selected here) and shorter narrative works which, for whatever reason, fall short of being epics.
1. Anonymous, ‘Sir Patrick Spens’.
The King sits in Dunferline toun,
Drinkin the blude-reid wine
‘O whaur will A get a skeely skipper
Tae sail this new ship o mine?’
We’ll begin this selection of classic narrative poems with a quintessential type of poetic narrative: the ballad.
This is one of the most famous ballads: it’s the tale of a reluctant sailor, Sir Patrick Spens, whom the King of Scotland sends for and tasks with the job of undertaking a perilous sea mission in the depths of winter.
2. William Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece.
And now this lustful lord leap’d from his bed,
Throwing his mantle rudely o’er his arm;
Is madly toss’d between desire and dread;
Th’ one sweetly flatters, th’ other feareth harm;
But honest fear, bewitch’d with lust’s foul charm,
Doth too too oft betake him to retire,
Beaten away by brain-sick rude desire …
Shakespeare was greatly influenced by the Roman poet Ovid, and this – one of two long narrative poems the Bard wrote while the London theatres were shut while plague was ravaging the city in the early 1590s – is highly Ovidian, drawing on a story Ovid had told in his Fasti.
A Roman soldier is overcome with desire for his friend’s wife, visits her, and forces himself upon her. She sends for her husband … but we won’t say any more for fear of offering too many spoilers. This is a tragic tale, but Shakespeare tells it using compelling language and imagery and the rhyme royal metre previously used by Chaucer.
3. Robert Burns, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’.
When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors, meet;
As market days are wearing late,
And folk begin to tak the gate,
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
An’ getting fou and unco happy …
This narrative poem follows the titular hero, an Ayrshire farmer fond of drink and spending time with his mates, and not so fond of getting home to his increasingly impatient wife.
The name of the tea clipper the Cutty Sark comes from this poem (it’s the nickname of Nannie Dee in Burn’s poem), while the name of the poem’s hero has been applied to the hats or caps worn by Scottish men ever since.
4. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS …’
Written in 1797-8, this is Coleridge’s most famous poem – it first appeared in Lyrical Ballads.
The idea of killing an albatross bringing bad luck upon the crew of a ship appears to have been invented in this poem, as there is no precedent for it – and the albatross idea was probably William Wordsworth’s, not Coleridge’s (Wordsworth got the idea of the albatross-killing from a 1726 book, A Voyage Round The World by Way of the Great South Sea, by Captain George Shelvocke).
The poem is one of the great narrative poems in English, with the old mariner recounting his story, with its hardships and tragedy, to a wedding guest. Variously interpreted as being about guilt over the Transatlantic slave trade, about Coleridge’s own loneliness, and about spiritual salvation, the poem remains a challenging narrative work whose ultimate meaning is elusive.
5. John Keats, ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’.
They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did aright;
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire …
This is, along with Coleridge’s poem, one of the finest narrative poems to come out of the English Romantic movement.
On a cold night in a medieval castle, a young lover breaks into his sweetheart’s chamber, hides in her closet, and then persuades her semi-conscious self to run away with him. It’s not quite as creepy as that summary makes it sound, and the way Keats tells it is deliciously compelling and lyrical.
6. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’.
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year…
One of the most famous poems about the American Revolution (or War of Independence), Longfellow’s narrative poem, published in 1860, details the journey made by the American patriot Paul Revere on 18 April 1775, with, once again, a good side-helping of poetic licence thrown in.
Revere awaits the signal telling him how and where the British will attack American troops, and when he hears they are attacking by sea, the devout patriot rides full pelt across Massachusetts to warn his fellow Americans.
Longfellow’s poem did much to create the modern ‘myth’ of Paul Revere, whose celebrated night-time ride wasn’t mentioned in obituaries reporting his death in 1818.
7. Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Raven’.
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.’
This poem had to head the list of a selection of Edgar Allan Poe’s best poems, really. It is the only literary work to inspire the name of a sporting team (the American Football team the Baltimore Ravens). According to Poe himself, in a later work of literary analysis, if he hadn’t had a change of heart we might well be reading a poem called, not ‘The Raven’, but ‘The Parrot’ (although he may have been pulling his readers’ legs there).
The unnamed narrator sits up late one dreary winter night, mourning the loss of his beloved, Lenore, when a raven appears at the window and speaks the repeated single word, ‘Nevermore’. The narrator starts to view the raven as some sort of prophet. See the link above to read the poem in full and learn more about it.
8. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘The Lady of Shalott’.
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro’ the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Tennyson’s classic narrative poem exists in two versions: a 20-stanza poem published in 1833, and the revised version of 19 stanzas – which is the one readers are most familiar with – which was published in 1842.
The poem, partly inspired by Arthurian legend (hence the presence of the knight, Lancelot) and partly by Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, has been read variously as an allegory about the world of fancy and the world of reality, and as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, with the idyllic world of magic and legend which Tennyson depicts being threatened by the arrival of new forces. Undoubtedly one of Tennyson’s greatest poetic achievements.
9. Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market.
Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
‘Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries …’
Probably the most famous poem Rossetti wrote. It’s a long narrative poem about two sisters, Lizzie and Laura, and how Laura succumbs to temptation and tastes the fruit sold by the goblins of the poem’s title.
What is Goblin Market about? The fruit in the poem which the goblins sell has been interpreted in various ways: critics have long seen the eroticised description of the exotic fruit as symbolic of (sexual) temptation, with Laura as the fallen women who succumbs to masculine wiles and is ruined as a result (though she is, of course, happily married at the end of the poem).
Some critics have drawn parallels between Laura’s addiction to the exotic fruit in the poem and the experience of drug addiction. In Victorian Britain, opium-addiction was a real social problem, opium being, like the fruits of Goblin Market, both sweet and bitter (i.e. having an up and a down side), and exotic as well (opium hailing from the Orient).
10. Alfred Noyes, ‘The Highwayman’.
To bring this pick of the best narrative poems to a more modern conclusion, here’s a 1906 example of narrative verse, and a firm classroom favourite for many decades.
Indeed, in 1995, it was voted Britain’s 15th favourite poem of all time. It’s a narrative poem that is also a love story and a tragedy, and begins with the titular highwayman riding to an inn to see the woman he loves, Bess.