Why is The Odyssey an epic poem?
There are many definitions of what an epic poem is. However, all poets and academics agree that the Odyssey is one of the classic examples of epic poetry.
To be classed as an epic, a poem must be long. But how long?
often book length, but there's no set length for which a poem goes from non-epic to epic.
Does an epic need form?
No, but they are often in verse form. As long as they are a narrative. Think of epic poems as a way to pass on historical events, in an entertaining, oral, fashion.
Both the Illiad and the Odyssey are in dactylic hexameter, but this is not a requirement of epics. However, it is the usual form of Greek and Latin epic poetry.
Elements often included in epics:
superhuman deeds, heroic adventures. Illustrative language - remember the first audience for epics were listeners, rather than readers.
How have epics changed?
Lord Byron and Alexander Pope both wrote epics, but utilised them for comic effect. Twentieth century poets rekindled interest in the long form, but the work of (e.g.) Charles Olsen and Frank Standford is usually described as a 're-envisioning' of the epic style.
The Odyssey is an epic poem because of the following:
- it is a long, narrative poem
- it focuses on an epic subject: the suffering of Odysseus
- it champions an epic hero, Odysseus,
- it characterizes the values and ideals of the Greeks
- it is passes on orally from a bard, or scop to a live audience over many sittings
- it contains elements of mythology and the supernatural, but its focus is primarily on humans
- it begins in medias res: "in the middle of the action"
- it chronicles many years and settings
- begins with an invocation of a muse
- uses formal, lengthy monologues
The term epic refers to a long narrative about a hero or god. In this situation the narrative actually takes the shape of epic poetry because it is written in meter.
One regularly comparable epic today is the Star Wars series. However, being in screenplay format, it differs in that it is not a poem.
Odysseus is the hero for whom the epic poem was written to celebrate. The poem is about his adventures from the point at which he finished the Trojan War until he is completely united with his wife.
The Odyssey begins as all epic poems do in Media Res, or in the middle of things. Nearly all modern novels begin from the beginning of a story and work their way through the plot while epic poetry will start in the middle of a story before explaining the events that came before it. In the case of the Odyssey, the story begins with Odysseus stranded on Calypso's island before narrating how he came to be shipwrecked on the island.
Also, while epic poetry does not rhyme, it was written in a meter that helped the bards of that day recite it from memory. Epic poetry is also quite frequently scattered with heroic epithets about noteworthy characters, hence the many references to Dawn with her Rosy Red Fingers. Other common themes include the invoking of deities such as Athena. And typically heroic epithets begin with a calling upon a muse. The Odyssey famously begins with the words "Sing to me of the man, Muse" thus fulfilling this as well. Additionally, epic poetry centers around a single great hero.