John Milton is as good as his writing.
He grew up wanting to write poetry, but held off on writing anything spectacularly huge until later in his life. When he had succeeded in his career, had a family, and gone blind, he finally decided to write some epic poetry, the kind he always knew he could write. He dictated Paradise Lost, and we still praise him for it.
But was it some act of genius? Was it a lightning-strike of a Muse, a moment of inspiration unparalleled before and since? Of course not. He spent time on this thing. He thought long and hard about how he was going to write it, who the characters were, and what story he wanted to tell. He weighed the options of language— should he write it in English, or a more epic language of Greek or Latin? (He was fluent in all three, and probably several more.) Should it rhyme? All of these deep, difficult questions plagued him, but he knocked them down one by one until he could produce the masterpiece we have today.
My point? There’s a process, my friends, to writing epic poetry. Homer, Virgil, Milton, all created amazing, lasting works— and you can too.
The Bones: Plot and Character Conventions
Epic poetry has a lot of traditions associated with it, and while none of them must be followed all the time, they are worth considering in your brainstorming process. In the broadest terms, every epic poem is about a hero (or group of heroes) accomplishing a task (or group of tasks). The greater the hero, the better the poem; the greater the task, the better the poem. For The Odyssey, Odysseus is the hero, and his task is to reclaim his home. That entails a rather long commute and some housecleaning upon arrival. He is the hero, and he accomplishes his tasks.
Beyond the basic, however, there are a couple more things that make epic poems seem like epic poems. In medias res, for instance, is a tradition of Greek and Latin epics: the story begins in the middle of things, with the true beginning of the tale filled in later. In Paradise Lost, the main character is actually Satan (bold move for a devout Christian), and the story begins after the battle in heaven where he attempts to dethrone God. That tale is told later by the angel Raphael, when Adam asks about it. There are other conventions, unique to the culture creating the epic poem, but the further you delve into such things, the more optional they seem. In medias res seems to be the most prevalent convention.
One interesting convention that I kind of like (which doesn’t pertain much to plot and character, but still fits here) is the invocation of the Muse. Homer and Virgil would both begin by calling upon the Greek gods to speed their tongues and help them to tell their tales before their guests had to leave for the restroom. (Not really— more like, “please more creativity I must words help”, and that sort of thing.) Milton gets creative with this and works with his faith, calling on God rather than the Greeks. Germanic stories such as Beowulf and Norse myths take a different approach, calling on the audience to Hear! at the beginning of each poem. Personally, I like the Hear! version, but both are pretty snazzy.
The Meat: Style and Meter
Considering this is an epic poem, we can’t forget to emphasize the poem part. Styles vary from writer to writer, but each epic poem throughout history has in common an elevated style. This starts with the meter of the poem. What’s the rhythm of each line? Homer and Virgil used dactylic hexameter, or heroic hexameter. Milton used iambic pentameter that didn’t rhyme, also called blank verse. Depending on the meter, different words must be used. I’ll let you look up those meters if you’re curious, but I’m most comfortable in iambic pentameter, so I’ll use that. Read the following out loud:
Of Bill the sandwich seeker I now speak,
Whose noble quest the world entire has rang’d.
In iambic pentameter, each line has ten syllables, and every other syllable is stressed. That means it’s spoken in a swinging sort of style: of BILL the SANDwich SEEKer I now SPEAK, and so on. That rhythm continues through each line. Think, though, if I changed the words around.
Bill’s the sandwich guy who took his mayo
Spreading all of it on his toasted bread.
This wreaks havoc on iambic pentameter. Bill’s THE sandWICH guy WHO took HIS maYO— stop there. No. Just say ‘mayo’. The first beat is much more natural to accent than the second. Just that, the accent of beats and how words are spoken, informs the way the couplet is written.
The other thing you’ll notice is the word “rang’d”, in the first couplet. Yes, I speak “ranged” as one syllable. Yet, if I had another couplet that needed an extra syllable, I could use “ranged” as a two-syllable word— it wouldn’t sound quite natural, but it wouldn’t sound bad either. In fact, it would fit with the elevated style. The meter affects the way you structure sentences and pronounce words.
And this isn’t even rhyming yet. Milton chose not to rhyme his iambic pentameter because he considered rhymes vulgar, but poetry is poetry. You can rhyme if you like— just realize it’s going to make things more difficult for you. Another style of epic poetry is alliteration, where most words in one line would begin with the same letter. Attempt at your own risk.
But meter, rhyming, and alliteration aren’t all. (If epic poetry was simple, everyone would do it.) The rest of the style techniques, however, are fairly easy to implement. The epic simile, for instance, is basically just ignoring a run-on sentence. Say something is like something else. Then expand it, showing exactly how it’s like something else, expanding and expanding and expanding until you’ve filled an entire page with allusions to Greek and Roman mythology and perhaps your grandma’s ancient recipe book. That’s an epic simile. Why epic? Because in anything but an epic, the writer would be stoned.
Allusions are another big part. Milton, despite writing about the time-before-time in the Christian faith, alluded constantly to Greek and Roman culture. Allusions are the perfect time to put your ancient history lessons to good use. Is something eluding someone? Liken it to the trial of Tantalus, tormented in the trackless wastes of Tartarus. (Epic simile + allusion + alliteration = a whole lot of confusion in anything but epic poetry!) Go crazy— this is another thing that makes an epic poem epic.
Have I covered it all? Of course not. Epic poems are enormous beasts, with ever more layers to study. I’ve given you an overview, something to think about as you do your own reading. (As with any other genre, I’d suggest reading around before attempting it.) A tale of heroic character doing heroic thing (oops, we started too late, here’s some backstory); listen to my protracted metaphors and how beautifully my words fit this alliterative rhyming meter! Go wild.
In the end, however, the art of epic form is up to you. Don’t take any of this too seriously; this is not a checklist that, if you complete everything here, will automatically make your poem epic. However, if you want to try your hand at epic poetry, this is a good place to start. The only rule is this: you make your own rules. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter sometimes had eleven syllables, or nine, instead of ten. Milton really stretched the definitions to make Satan fit into the framework, and still focused a lot on the human, tragic aspect of his story rather than the triumph of his hero. Does anything cease to be epic based on the lack of any of these things? Of course not. So you have a badly-phrased line here or there. So you didn’t begin in medias res or your epic similes are a little shrimpy. What else are you going to call this behemoth poem of yours? Freeform? No, it’s epic because you call it epic, just as all these examples I’ve given are epic because we call them epic. It doesn’t turn into a limerick just because you forgot a syllable.
Have fun with this. If this intrigues you at all, look into epic form. It’s an interesting thing to study in a time when everything from video games to parties can be labeled ‘epic’.