In honor of National Poetry Month, we’re releasing a list of our library’s top five most researched poems from the ancient epics through the Middle Ages, and making them available for free for an entire month. Check out some of the oldest epic poems ever written. In their time, they used to be more frequently performed aloud rather than read! Visit our topic page on poetry for even more poetry, critical analysis and quality research.
- Beowulf – This epic poem, “the oldest epic narrative in any modern European tongue,” tells the story of Beowulf, a hero who defeats the monster Grendel as well as his mother, who is terrorizing Hrothgar, King of the Danes. Most likely dating back to the eighth century, the author of Beowulf is unknown, though it’s believed that portions of the story must have originally began circulating by oral transmission. The poem is celebrated for its brilliant representation of heroic tradition and is still widely studied today. [Beowulf. Trans. Charles W. Kennedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. Questia. Web.]
- The Iliad – A famous epic poem written by Homer, the Iliad is one of the oldest works of Western literature in existence and tells of the ten-year siege of the city of Troy during the Trojan War. The two main characters, the brave warrior Achilles and King Agamemnon, are bitter rivals and at odds over honor and status. The story also recounts “the rage of Achilles,” classifying it as superhuman and aligned with cosmic forces (specifically, that of the god of Zeus). This fulfillment of Zeus’ purposes by Achilles’ rage ultimately brings destruction to both his Greek companions, and their enemies, the Trojans. [Homer. Iliad. Trans. Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997. Questia. Web.]
- The Odyssey – Some consider The Odyssey to be Homer’s sequel to The Iliad, chronicling Odysseus’ epic ten-year journey back home to Ithaca after the Greek victory at Troy. It is said to be a Trojan legend that the feat of returning home once again was at least as great of a challenge for the Greeks as winning the war itself. The epic is thought to have been written towards the end of the 8th century in Greece and was more than likely written to be heard, as opposed to read. [Homer. Odyssey. Trans. Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2000. Questia. Web.]
- The Canterbury Tales – Written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 1300s, The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories being shared between a group of travelers on a fictional pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. It is said that it took Chaucer over 10 years to write the piece, beginning in 1386 or 87 and working until his death in 1400. Today, there are over 80 known manuscripts of the work dating from the late medieval and early Renaissance period, though it is still debated as to whether or not The Canterbury Tales are actually finished. [Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Trans. Nevill Coghill. Revised ed. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1969. Questia. Web.]
- Gilgamesh – This epic poem about King Gilgamesh takes place in the city of Uruk, and details a struggle between the King and Enkidu, a rival created by the chief god of Uruk specifically to challenge Gilgamesh. Though the first tablet of the poem begins with praise for Gilgamesh, the reader soon learns that he is a terrible oppressor to the people of Uruk, who constantly cry to the chief god of the city for help. In response, the chief god has the mother goddess creates Enkidu, at one with nature, at which point the poem explores the classic confrontation of civilization against nature. [The Epic of Gilgamesh. Trans. Maureen Gallery Kovacs. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989. Questia. Web.]
To pick up where the Middle Ages left off, take a look at our recent blog post on popular poems from the Renaissance to today.