Epic poetry or Heroic poetry: Its types and characteristics; The Primary and Secondary Epic


An epic is a lengthy poem recounting in elevated style the exploits of a legendary hero or heroes, especially in battles or voyages. This is also known as a heroic poem.

Types of Epic:

Primary Epic – It has its origin in popular song and story. It is not the work of one man or the result of conscious artistic effort. A number of stories and legends about some popular hero may circulate in an oral form for generations. They may be given currency by wandering bards or minstrels. Later on, some poets may collect them, organise them and impart them form and unity. Iliad is one such epic. It is supposed to have been composed by the Ancient Greek poet Homer out of a number of fragmentary stories. The Anglo-Saxon Beuwolf is another epic of growth. The name of the poet who brought together the floating material of legend and folk-lore is not known. It is also known as Epic of Growth.

Secondary Epic – It is an artistic imitation of the manner and style of the authentic epic or the epic of growth. It is the work of one man who tries to imitate and excel the earlier poets. Aenied of the Roman poet Virgil and Paradise Lost of the English poet Milton are the most prominent examples. This kind of epic is also known as  Epic of art.

General characteristics of an epic:

1. It is a long narrative poem, generally divided into twelve books. Homer’s epics are divided into twelve books each, and Milton also divided his Paradise Lost into twelve books.

2. It deals with the military exploits, deeds of valour, of some national hero or of same person of national, even international importance. The epic hero is a man of heroic bulk and dimensions. He is giant among men and has extraordinary physical prowess. Because an epic is a story of heroic deeds it is also called a heroic poem. Thus Homer’s Iliad narrates the heroic deeds of the Greeks during the war of Troy, and Odyssey those of King Odysseus or Ulysses. Milton’s Paradise Lost has a cosmic sweep and range and deals with events of interest to all mankind. In this respect, it stands unique among the epics of the world.

3. A number of thrilling and sensational episodes and digressions are introduced. There is much exaggeration, and the incredible adventures and deeds of valour narrated by the poet excite wonder and admiration.

4. However, despite such digressions, the epic has a well-marked unity and form. It is an organic whole. Thus unity is provided by the fact that all events and adventures center around the central figure, the epic-hero.

5. The supernatural plays an important part, and frequently intervenes in the action. Thus in Homer’s Iliad, the Gods intervene in the war of Troy, and in Spenser’s Faire Queene also a number of supernatural agencies are seen at work.

6. An epic reflects the life of the times. It is the very embodiment of the spirit of the age in which it is written. It is an important social document and much may be known from it about the life of the times.

7. The purpose of the epic is moral. It may be to arouse patriotism and national pride as in the case of Homer, or “to fashion a gentleman in virtuous and gentle discipline” as in the case of Spenser, or to justify the ways of god to man, as in the case of Milton.

8. The theme of an epic is lofty and sublime, and its diction is equally elevated and grand. Grandeur both in theme and treatment characterises an epic. Epic-similes, Personifications, Latinism, unusual and unfamiliar words. allusions and references, Latin or inverted constructions, peripherises, etc., are the various stylistic devices used with this end in view.

9. It does not begin his story from the beginning, but plunges somewhere in the middle, and the earlier part of the story is told in due course.

10.  the poet begins the epic with an invocation to the Muse to inspire him. Milton invokes the Heavenly Muse in the very beginning of his epic.