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The Best Story Poems of All Time
The Best Narrative Poems of All Time
The Best Epic Poems of All Time

Some of the greatest poems ever written narrate a story. Thus story poems can also be called "narrative poems." When story poems are about important events and/or heroic actions, and are of considerable length, they are called epic poems. Lyric poems can also tell stories, but are usually much shorter. For instance, the sonnet Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelly tells a compelling story in fourteen lines but doesn't have the breadth and detail of an epic poem like the Odyssey or Iliad. A haiku might tell a very brief story, leaving out most of the details, using only 17 syllables, or thereabouts.

The types or sub-genres of narrative poetry include epics, verse novels, ballads, romances, idylls, and lays.

compiled by Michael R. Burch

A Timeline of the Top Ten Epic Poems (*)

Note: When an exact date of composition is unknown, the author's birthdate, if known or "guessable," has sometimes been used. The older the date, the less likely it is to be precise. All dates are AD unless specifically denoted BC. My picks for the top ten epics are marked with asterisks.

The Epic of Gilgamesh circa 2000 BC (*)
The Odyssey by Homer circa 1000 BC (*)
The Iliad
by Homer circa 1000 BC (*)
The Mahabharata
and Bhagavad Gita by Veda Vyasa circa 500 BC
The Aeneid
by Virgil circa 70 BC (*)
by Ovid circa 40 BC
The Shahnameh ("The Persian Book of Kings") by Firdawsi circa 940
Beowulf circa 1000 (*)
Chanson de Roland ("The Song of Roland") circa 1100 (*)
Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris circa 1230
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri circa 1265 (*)
Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer circa 1385 (*)
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser circa 1590 (*)
Paradise Lost by John Milton circa 1658 (*)
Paradise Regained by John Milton circa 1671
The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope circa 1714
Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe circa 1808
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Lord Byron circa 1810
Don Juan by Lord Byron circa 1818
The Cantos by Ezra Pound circa 1915

Honorable mention: The Book of Job, El Cid, Gawain and the Green Knight, The Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), The Nibelungenlied (The Saga of Siegfried), The Icelandic Sagas, Orlando Furioso, The Lusiads, Epic of Manas, The Saga of King Gesar, The Ramayana, The Raghuvamsa, Táin Bó Cúailnge ("The Cattle Raid of Cooley"), Queen Mab, Alastor, The Revolt of Islam, Endymion, Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Prometheus Bound, Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha, Aurora Leigh, Idylls of the King, The Wanderings of Oisin, The Bridge, Patterson, Omeros, Helvellyn

Other Noteworthy Longer Story Poems: The "Dream Visions"

An ancient "dream vision" was Cicero's Somnium Scipionis ("The Dream of Scipio") composed circa 50 BC. Chaucer mentioned Cicero in his Parliament of Foules.
The Consolation of Philosophy
 by the 6th-century Roman philosopher Boethius also influenced later dream visions. Chaucer translated it, as did King Alfred the Great.
The Dream of the Rood has been dated to the 8th century or no later than the 10th, making it one of the oldest extant poems in the English language.
Le Roman de la Rose
("The Romance of the Rose"), circa 1230, is a long allegorical dream vision and notable example of medieval French courtly literature.
Wynnere and Wastoure is an English dream vision poem believed to have been composed circa 1350 by an unknown poet.
Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Foules, circa 1380, is an early example of an English dream vision poem by a known poet.
The Book of the Duchess, circa 1368, and The House of Fame, circa 1379, are Chaucer's other surviving dream vision poems.
William Langland's Piers Plowman is an English dream vision poem composed around the same time as Chaucer's.
Pearl is another English dream vision poem believed to have been written around this time, by an unknown poet.
John Gower's Confessio Amantis ("The Lover's Confession"), circa 1390, uses the dream vision as a vehicle for consolation.

Top Ten Story Poems
Top Ten Narrative Poems

Paul Revere's Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (tie)
The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning
The Raven by Edgar Alan Poe
The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop
The Listeners by Walter de la Mare
Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley
The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens by Anonymous
Wulf and Eadwacer by Anonymous
The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes
Hamlet, King Lear, Othello and Macbeth by William Shakespeare

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The Listeners

by Walter De La Mare

'Is there anybody there?' said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest's ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller's head
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
'Is there anybody there?' he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
'Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:—
'Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,' he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Wulf and Eadwacer (anonymous Anglo-Saxon ballad, circa 990 AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The curs pursue him like crippled game.
They will rip him to shreds if he approaches their pack.
We are so different.

Wulf is on one island; I, on another.
His island's a fortress, surrounded by fens.
Here bloodthirsty men howl, lusting for sacrifice.
They will rip him to shreds if he approaches their pack.
We are so different.

My thoughts pursued Wulf like wide-ranging hounds.
Whenever it rained and I sobbed, disconsolate,
huge, battle-strong arms grabbed and enclosed me.
That felt good, to a point, but its end was loathsome.
Wulf, oh, my Wulf! My desire for you
has made me sick; your seldom-comings
have left me famished, deprived of real meat.
Do you hear, Heaven-Watcher? A wolf has borne
our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sever what never was one:
our song together.

Translator's Notes: This ancient poem has been characterized as an elegy, a wild lament, a lover's lament, a passion play, a riddle, a song, or an early ballad. However, most scholars place it within the genre of the frauenlied, or woman's song. It may be the first extant poem authored by a woman in the fledgling English language; it seems likely that the poet was a woman because we don't usually think of ancient scops pretending to be women. "Wulf and Eadwacer" might also be called the first English feminist text, as the speaker seems to be challenging and mocking the man who has been raping and impregnating her. And the poem's closing metaphor of a loveless relationship being like a song in which two voices never harmonized remains one of the strongest in the English language, or any language.—Michael R. Burch

The Highwayman
by Alfred Noyes

This excellent BBC enactment of "The Highwayman" runs 9 1/2 minutes and features Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne and Lucy Griffiths as Marian of Knighton. The poem is sung quite wonderfully by Loorena McKennitt.

The Death of a Toad
by Richard Wilbur

       A toad the power mower caught,
Chewed and clipped of a leg, with a hobbling hop has got
   To the garden verge, and sanctuaried him
   Under the cineraria leaves, in the shade
      Of the ashen and heartshaped leaves, in a dim,
          Low, and a final glade.

       The rare original heartsblood goes,
Spends in the earthen hide, in the folds and wizenings, flows
    In the gutters of the banked and staring eyes. He lies
    As still as if he would return to stone,
        And soundlessly attending, dies
           Toward some deep monotone,

       Toward misted and ebullient seas
And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia's emperies.
    Day dwindles, drowning and at length is gone
    In the wide and antique eyes, which still appear
        To watch, across the castrate lawn,
            The haggard daylight steer.

The Writer

by Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

Whoso List to Hunt
by Sir Thomas Wyatt

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas!, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

Noli me tangere means "Touch me not." According to the Bible, this is what Jesus said to Mary Magdalene when she tried to embrace him after the resurrection. In May 1536, Wyatt was imprisoned in the Tower of London for allegedly committing adultery with Anne Boleyn. He was released from the Tower later that year, thanks to his friendship and his father's friendship with Thomas Cromwell. But during his stay in the Tower, Wyatt may have witnessed the execution of Anne Boleyn from his cell window, and the executions of the five other men with whom she was accused of committing adultery. A common interpretation of this poem is that the deer (dear) is Anne Boleyn, and that Caesar is King Henry VIII, who had her and her lovers beheaded.

Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

A Blessing
by James Wright

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

The Fish

by Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight.
He hadn't fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
—It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

by Sir Walter Scott

I climbed the dark brow of the mighty Helvellyn,
Lakes and mountains beneath me gleamed misty and wide;
All was still, save by fits, when the eagle was yelling, 
And starting around me the echoes replied.
On the right, Striden-edge round the Red-tarn was bending,
And Catchedicam its left verge was defending,
One huge, nameless rock in the front was ascending,
When I marked the sad spot where the wanderer had died.
Dark green was that spot 'mid the brown mountain heather,
Where the pilgrim of nature lay stretched in decay,
Like the corpse of an outcast abandoned to weather,
Till the mountain-winds wasted the tenantless clay.
Nor yet quite deserted, though lonely extended,
For, faithful in death, his mute favourite attended,
The much-loved remains of her master defended,
And chased the hill-fox and the raven away.
How long didst thou think that his silence was slumber?
When the wind waved his garment, how oft didst thou start?
How many long days and long weeks didst thou number,
Ere he faded before thee, the friend of thy heart?
And, oh! was it meet, that—no requiem read o'er him,
No mother to weep, and no friend to deplore him,
And thou, little guardian, alone stretched before him—
Unhonoured the pilgrim from life should depart?
When a prince to the fate of the peasant has yielded,
The tapestry waves dark round the dim-lighted hall;
With scutcheons of silver the coffin is shielded,
And pages stand mute by the canopied pall;
Through the courts, at deep midnight, the torches are gleaming;
In the proudly arched chapel the banners are beaming;
Far adown the long aisle sacred music is streaming,
Lamenting a chief of the people should fall.
But meeter for thee, gentle lover of nature,
To lay down thy head like the meek mountain lamb,
When, wildered, he drops from some cliff huge in stature,
And draws his last sob by the side of his dam.
And more stately thy couch by this desert lake lying,
Thy obsequies sung by the gray plover flying,
With but one faithful friend to witness thy dying
In the arms of Helvellyn and Catchedicam.

More Story Poems:

Loveliest of Trees by A. E. Housman
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
Mending Wall by Robert Frost
Directive by Robert Frost
Birches by Robert Frost
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot
The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy
The Convergence of the Twain by Thomas Hardy
Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen
Strange Meeting by Wilfred Owen
I saw a man pursuing the horizon by Stephen Crane
The Mill by Edward Arlington Robinson
Mr. Flood's Party by Edward Arlington Robinson
Richard Cory by Edward Arlington Robinson
Miniver Cheevy by Edward Arlington Robinson
I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died by Emily Dickinson
Leda and the Swan by William Butler Yeats
A Supermarket in California by Allen Ginsberg
Danny Deever by Rudyard Kipling

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