Top 10 Greatest Epic Poems of The 20th century

Modern poets tend to avoid the epic style poetry of the past – but there can be no doubt that many of them were influenced greatly by these poems. This is a selection of the most well known epic poems from the 20th century.

1. Ural-batyr - 1910


Ural-batyr or Ural-batır (from Ural + Turkic batır - "hero, brave man") is the most famous kubair (epic poem) of the Bashkirs. It is telling of heroic deeds and legendary creatures, the formation of natural phenomena, and so on. It is analog many similar epics (the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, the Germanic Nibelungenlied, the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh, or the Finnish/Karelian Kalevala). The epic poem propagates the idea of the nation's eternal life and the ability of man to vanquish evil. The poem, originally existing solely in the oral form of a song, was set in the written form by the Bashkir folk poet Mukhamedsha Burangulov in 1910. This story is very ancient, and reminds of some of stories from Babylon and Sumer[citation needed]. The epos reproduces some pre-Biblical story about Kain and Abel. There are traces of Iranian civilization in Bashkort and Tatar cultures, as some words and names of cities and people.

2. The Ballad of the White Horse - 1911

The Ballad of the White Horse - 1911

The Ballad of the White Horse is a poem by G. K. Chesterton about the idealised exploits of the Saxon King Alfred the Great, published in 1911. Written in ballad form, the work has been described as one of the last great traditional epic poems ever written in the English language. The poem narrates how Alfred was able to defeat the invading Danes at the Battle of Ethandun with the aid of the Virgin Mary. The poem consists of 2,684 lines of English verse. They are divided into stanzas, typically consisting of 4 to 6 lines each. The poem is based on the ballad stanza form, although the poem often departs significantly from it. Types of metrical feet are used more or less freely, although there is often basic repetition in a line. The rhyme scheme varies, often being ABCB or ABCCCB.

3. Dymer - 1926

Dymer (poem)

Dymer is a narrative poem by C. S. Lewis. He worked on this, his most important poem, as early as 1916—when still only 17 years old—and completed it in 1925. Dymer was his second published work; it was published by J. M. Dent in 1926, under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton (the writer's actual first name followed by his mother's maiden name).

Lewis thought of himself as writing in the tradition of Homer, Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth, and others. George Sayer's analysis suggests that the book is about the temptation of "the fantasies of love, lust, and power."

4. John Brown's Body - 1928

John Brown's Body - 1928

John Brown's Body (1928) is an epic American poem written by Stephen Vincent Benét. Its title references the radical abolitionist John Brown, who raided the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in Virginia in October 1859. He was captured and hanged later that year. Benét's poem covers the history of the American Civil War. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1929. It was written while Benét lived in Paris after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1926.

The poem was performed on Broadway in 1953 in a staged dramatic reading starring Tyrone Power, Judith Anderson, and Raymond Massey, and directed by Charles Laughton. In 2015 the recorded performance was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry for the recording's "cultural, artistic and/or historical significance to American society and the nation’s audio legacy".

5. The Bridge - 1930

The Bridge - 1930

According to the 1988 Voices and Visions PBS documentary on Crane, when Crane first began to write The Bridge, he "felt. . .stuck and was incapable of writing more than a few lines." Around this time Crane wrote, "Emotionally I should like to write The Bridge. Intellectually the whole theme seems more and more absurd. The very idea of a bridge is an act of faith. The form of my poem rises out of a past that so overwhelms the present with its worth and vision that I'm at a loss to explain my delusion that there exists any real links between that past and a future destiny worthy of it. If only America were half as worthy today to be spoken of as Whitman spoke of it fifty years ago, there might be something for me to say." As the poem began to take shape and showed promise, Crane wrote, "The Bridge is symphonic in including all the strands: Columbus, conquest of water, land, Pocahontas, subways, offices. The Bridge, in becoming a ship, a world, a woman, a tremendous harp as it does finally, seems to really have a career."

6. In Parenthesis - 1937

In Parenthesis

In Parenthesis is an epic poem of the First World War by David Jones first published in England in 1937. Although Jones had been known solely as an engraver and painter prior to its publication, the poem won the Hawthornden Prize and the admiration of writers such as W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot. Based on Jones's own experience as an infantryman, In Parenthesis narrates the experiences of English Private John Ball in a mixed English-Welsh regiment starting with embarkation from England and ending seven months later with the assault on Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme. The work employs a mixture of lyrical verse and prose, is highly allusive, and ranges in tone from formal to Cockney colloquial and military slang.

7. Victory for the Slain - 1942

Victory for the Slain - 1942

Victory for the Slain is an anti-war poem written by children's author Hugh Lofting, creator of the Doctor Dolittle series. Published in 1942, the poem is based on Lofting's experiences during World War I and one of the strongest literary expressions of his pacifism. It was Lofting's second book of verse but the only work written by him for adults.

The narrator is an unknown individual who journeys to, and eventually into, a cathedral. On the way, in the first two movements of the poem, he passes infantry soldiers marching and a wounded World War I veteran. The narrator also passes the poor box which is symbolic of the wealth and treasures wasted in war. In the third movement the narrator then enters a church to seek solace where he muses about the folly of war and the inability of man to learn from his past mistakes as shown in this verse:

Why must I mingle and confuse
These sounds and thoughts that muse
So madly through my mind?
Wars to end wars? —War again!
Must Mankind forever kill and kill,
Thwarting every decent dictate
Of the human will?
War again! —
When well we know
War's final victors always were the slain.

In the end, the narrator doesn't find the solace that he seeks as the chancel, the portion of the cathedral he is in during three sections of the poem, is destroyed by bombs. However, the narrator vows to learn from the lessons of the past and not give in to hatred and military revenge. It is here, perhaps, that Lofting is referencing the ongoing conflict of World War II against the Nazi regime. Thus, Lofting and the narrator, as a single person, hope that the “slain” can lead the world to an enlightened peace.

8. Song of Lawino - 1966

Song of Lawino

Song of Lawino is an epic poem written by Ugandan poet Okot p'Bitek. First published in 1966 in Acholi Luo, it was quickly translated into other languages, including English. Song of Lawino has become one of the most widely read literary works originating from Sub-Saharan Africa. It has also become culturally iconic within Africa, because of its scathing display of how African society was being destroyed by the colonization of Africa

Song of Lawino, which is a narrative poem, describes how Lawino's husband, Ocol, the son of the tribal leader of their Acholi tribe, has taken another wife, Clementine, who is educated and acts European. Although Ocol's polygamy is accepted by society, and by Lawino herself, her description of his actions shows that he is shunning Lawino in favour of Clementine. Ocol is also said to be fascinated with the culture of the European colonialists. As an example of this, Lawino says Ocol no longer engages, or has any interest in, the ritualistic African dance but prefers the ballroom-style dances introduced by the colonizing Europeans. This loss of culture on the part of Ocol is what disturbs Lawino the most. The poem is an extended appeal from Lawino to Ocol to stay true to his own customs, and to abandon his desire to be white.

9. Emperor Shaka the Great - 1979

Emperor Shaka the Great - 1979

Emperor Shaka the Great is an epic poem based on the Zulu oral tradition, compiled in Zulu then translated by South African poet Mazisi Kunene. The poem follows the life of Shaka Zulu, poem documenting his exploits as a king of the Zulu people, who produced considerable advances in State structure and military technologies of the Zulu. Some critics express concern over the historicity of the retelling. However, Kunene's embrasure of an African perspective on Shaka's rule expresses an attempt at understanding the apparent horrors observed by Europeans in the history of Shaka.

10. Omeros - 1990

Omeros - 1990

Omeros is an epic poem by Saint Lucian writer Derek Walcott, first published in 1990. The work is divided into seven "books" containing a total of sixty-four chapters. Many critics view Omeros as Walcott's "major achievement." Soon after its publication in 1990, it received praise from publications like The Washington Post and The New York Times Book Review, the latter of which chose the book as one of its "Best Books of 1990" and called it "one of Mr. Walcott's finest poetic works." The book also won the WH Smith Literary Award in 1991. In 1992, Walcott was also awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the Nobel committee member who presented the award, Professor Kjell Espmark, singled out Walcott's most recent achievement at the time, Omeros, recognizing the book as a "major work". Walcott painted the cover for the book, which depicts some of his main characters at sea together in a boat. In 2004, the critic Hilton Als of The New Yorker called the book "Walcott's masterpiece" and characterized the poem as "the perfect marriage of Walcott’s classicism and his nativism".


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