Definition of Epyllion, Its characteristics and examples

Epyllion (Gk ‘little epos’, ‘a scrap of poetry’): The sense of ‘little epic’ appears to date from the 19th c. when it was used to describe a short narrative poem resembling an epic in theme, tone, or style in dactylic hexameters. The genre included mythological subjects and love themes. The poems are usually learned, elaborate and allusive. They were popular in the Alexandrian period, the late Republican and early Augustan periods. The Byzantine poets also wrote epyllia. As a form of narrative verse, it has some affinities with the Russian byliny, the South Slav narodne pesme and Greek kleftic songs.

There are a great many poems in English literature that might be described as epyllia. In Renaissance poetry, they tended to be a kind of erotic treatment of a mythological narrative. For example, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, Thomas Lodge’s Scillaes Metamorphosis (1589), and Francis Beaumont’s Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (1602).

More generally the term might apply to such poems as Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum and C. Day Lewis’s Flight to Australia.

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