An epic is a long narrative poem in elevated style presenting characters of high position in adventures forming an organic whole through their relation to a central heroic figure and through their development of episodes important to the history of a nation or race.
Over time, the epic has evolved to fit changing languages, traditions, and beliefs. Byron and Pope used the epic for comic effect (usually called "mock epics") in Don Juan and The Rape of the Lock. Other epics of note include Beowulf, The Faerie Queene, Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost. The epic has also been used to formalize mythological traditions in many cultures, such as the Norse mythology in The Edda and Germanic mythology in The Nibelungenlied, and more recently, the Finnish mythology of Elias Lönnrot’s Kalevala.
In the 20th century, poets expanded the epic genre further with a renewed interest in the long poems. The Cantos by Ezra Pound, Maximus by Charles Olson, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You by Frank Stanford, and Paterson by William Carlos Williams, while not technically epics, push and pull at the boundaries of the genre, re-envisioning the epic through the lens of modernism.
Most epics begin in medias res, or "in the middle of things." The remainder of the story is told through flashbacks to explain the action leading up to that point. The Iliad, for example, begins after the war between the Greeks and the Trojans has been going on for nearly ten years.
The setting for an epic is vast, covering huge swaths of the world or the universe. The Odyssey, for instance, has Odysseus placed on a number of islands and in a number of lands, spanning the known world.
The story begins with an invocation or a prayer to a god, gods, or semi-divine being. The poet asks for a blessing, for something superhuman to aid him in his effort. The Odyssey begins with these lines:
Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
Translated by Robert Fitzgerald (1961)
Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Translated by Richmond Lattimore (1965)
Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles,
the man who wandered many paths of exile
after he sacked Troy's sacred citadel.
Translated by Allen Mandelbaum (1990)
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Translated by Robert Fagles (1996)
The story begins with a statement of theme. Although the basic story was always familiar to the audience, because these poems are so long and so complex, the poet would begin by announcing what the recitation was to be about. The poet's craft was not in what story was being told, but how it was done. Everyone could focus and appreciate on what the poet brough to the time-honored plot. This may take the form of a purpose (as in Milton's Paradise Lost, where he proposed "to justify the ways of God to men"); of a question (as in The Iliad, which Homer begins by asking a Muse to sing of Achilles' anger); or of a situation (as in The Song of Roland, which sets its opening scene with Charlemagne in Spain).
Epithets are adjectives or descriptive phrases expressing a quality or characteristic of the person or thing mentioned. Epics are full of them. Epithets alter the meaning of each noun to which they are attached. They specify the existential nature of a noun. For instance, Achilles is not called "swift-footed" only when he runs; it is a marker of a quality that does not change. Special epithets, such as patronymics, are used exclusively for particular subjects and distinguish them from others, while generic epithets are used of many subjects and speak less to their individual character. In Homer, Agamemnon and Menelaus are called "the twin eagles," or "Atreus' two sons." Impersonal example might be "rosy-fingered dawn" or the "wine-dark sea." You can see a connection here to kennings in Old English.
Epic similes, or Homeric similes, are long comparisons of two things that are in different classes. They are used to intensify the heroic stature of the subject and to serve as decoration and elaboration. In the words of Peter Jones, Homeric similes "are miraculous, redirecting the reader's attention in the most unexpected ways and suffusing the poem with vividness, pathos and humor." They are also important, as it is through these similes that the narrator directly talks to the audience. An example from The Iliad:
Here's a longer one from Omeros, where Walcott describes the syllables of the name "Omeros":As when the shudder of the west wind suddenly rising scatters across the water,
and the water darkens beneath it, so darkening were settled the ranks of Achaians and Trojans in the plain.
and O was the conch-shell's invocation, mer was
both mother and sea in our Antillean patois,
os, a grey bone, and the white surf as it crashes
and spreads its sibilant collar on a lace shore.
Omeros was the crunch of dry leaves, and the washes
that echoed from a cave-mouth when the tide has ebbed.
The name stayed in my mouth.
Most epics offer lists or catalogs, both long and short, of things, places, and characters. These place the finite action of the epic within a broader, universal context. Often, the poet is also paying homage to the ancestors of audience members. Some of these are lists of genealogies of heroes and warriors, some are lists of articles at hand or in storehouses, and some are lists of elements in the natural world. Perhaps the most famous (or the most tedious, take your pick) is The Catalogue of Ships in Book 2 of The Iliad, which lists the contingents of the Greek army that sailed to Troy. The catalogue gives the names of the leaders of each contingent, lists the settlements in the kingdom represented by the contingent (sometimes with a descriptive epithet for them which gives names, parentage, and place), and gives the number of ships required to transport the men to Troy, offering further differentiations of weightiness.
Epics frequently have epic digressions. These are passages that do not further the action of the story because they are explanatory or descriptive asides or because they repeat what has already been said. The audience had to remember a vast amount of material, so redundancy or reminding them of background material was necessary.
The time or place doesn't matter; characters in epics are always up for a long formal speech. These can occur in the middle of a battlefield, as the slaughter rages on all sides, or in the middle of a meeting of leaders and nobles, where you'd certainly expect them.
Gods always step into the midde of human affairs. They are easily able to interfere with the lives of mortals. And even if they do not have the power to change the fates of humans, they are still able to manipulate them like puppets for their own purposes. In The Aeneid, for example, Juno has been angry at the Trojans for years, and takes out her anger on Aeneas. She persuades Aeolus to bring up a storm to destroy Aeneas' fleet, but Neptune manages to calm the storm and Aeneas is left with seven ships. Venus causes Dido, the Queen of Carthage, to fall in love with her son Aeneas. so that he may be welcome there without having to fight the Carthaginians.
Epic heroes manifest the values of their civilizations. The Greeks valued physical strength and prowess in battle, and Achilles was an embodiment of those virtues. They also valued endurance, a cunning mind, the ability to create technology, problem-solving, and self-control, all of which are seen in Odysseus.
The hero generally participates in a cyclical journey or quest, faces adversaries that try to defeat him in his journey and returns home significantly transformed by his journey.
Katabasis is the epic convention of the hero's trip into the underworld. In Greek mythology, for example, Orpheus enters the underworld in order to bring Eurydice back to the world of the living. In The Odyssey, Odysseus goes to the antechamber of the underworld to speak with Tiresias, but also sees (among many others) his mother, Agamemnon, Achilles, Patroclus, Tantalus, Sisyphus, and Herakles. In The Aeneid, when Aeneas leaves Troy he carries his father, Anchises, on his back. After Anchises' death, Aeneas visits him in the Underworld, where Anchises reveals to his son Rome's future greatness.
From multiple sources, including "Poetic Form: Epic" at www.poetry.org, and Holman, C. Hugh, and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. NY: Macmillan, 1986.