Arts & Culture

Why You Should Read Long Poems

When flipping through a book of poems for something to read, it is easy to skip over the long poems that go on for pages and only read the short ones.  Who has time to waste on a long poem– or, in this digital age, the attention span?  Certainly, short poems have their merits: their brevity dictates that they be well-written with exact word choice and vivid imagery.  But longer poems deserve attention as well for their age, influence, and grandeur.

Long before a written alphabet was developed, ancient peoples created, memorized, and recited poetry orally.  As generations revised and built on these traditions, they created long epic poems passed down by word of mouth.  One of these poems, the Epic of Gilgamesh, was written down and survives today.  The Greek poet Homer composed the Iliad and the Odyssey, two famous epic poems that have influenced historical and modern conceptions of Greek mythology and legends.  Another oral epic poem that survives is Beowulf, an Old Norse legend, which partly inspired Tolkien’s mythology of Middle Earth.  Following in the footsteps of the oral poetry tradition, mainly the epics of Homer, other poets wrote great works of epic poetry, including Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Arguably, these few epic poems have influenced literature more than all other books and poems combined.  Full of adventure, the afterlife, and profound explorations of humanity, epic poetry is well worth reading for school, for personal enrichment, or for fun.  All other literature looks brighter after the light of these great works.

Epic poetry offers motivation to read other long poems as well.  Many other authors followed the tradition of epic poetry and wrote long poems inspired by Homer.  For instance, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters” offers details from Tennyson’s imagination about one event in Homer’s Odyssey.  Other poems imitate epic poetry simply in their length, like William Wordsworth’s Prelude, the intended introduction to an epic poem that he never wrote.  Others invoke classical themes, such as referencing the Greek gods from Homer’s poems or subjects such as heroism and life after death.  On the other hand, some long poems imitate medieval romance, pastoral and courtly love poetry about knights, romance, and the glorious days of old when the legendary King Arthur reigned.  These poems also influenced modern culture, which still features elements from these tales in fantasy novels with their imaginary creatures and enchantments.  Romantic poems also contain wonderful stories and the poems they have inspired, such as Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, are also worth reading.  Still other long poems have been inspired by or were dictated from oral poetry in other parts of the world such as Russia and Africa or more recent oral poetry such as Scottish ballads.

Long poetry comes in many styles and forms, due to the great variety of places and times where oral poems have been composed or have inspired written poems.  Because of their history, long poems have a timeless grandeur that shorter poetry often lacks, and they usually use tried-and-true forms and meters that never fail to roll off the tongue (especially if they were meant to be recited).  Most importantly, long poetry has had a much greater influence on literature and history than its shorter counterparts, and reading epic poetry allows the poet to join in on the Great Conversation across history and the world about the definition of great literature and how to write it.  So why are you still reading this article?  If you have free time, go read a long poem, whether old or new.  You won’t be disappointed.


Photo Credit:


My Belhaven High Scholars English teachers, Mr. Michael and Dr. Leake

One Comment

  1. Wonderful Emma! I loved this article. I definitely agree with you; poetry is such an art, and I enjoy reading poems, both old and new, short and long. And longer poems are so wonderful at story telling. This is a great article!