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 This article will equip you with a detailed study of the major forms or types of poetry with special emphasis on their distinguishing features; it is necessary that you be able to know the type of poem that you are dealing with at any point in time.

Nowadays it has become the norm to speak of the various types of poetry and it is therefore pertinent for us to note that these types developed at different periods in the long history of written English poetry. To the earliest and mostly communal types such as the epic and the ballad have been added other forms, whose roots may be traceable to these earlier forms, but are mainly of the lyrical stock that are concerned with the expression of the intense personal emotions or feelings of the poet on a specific subject.

These major forms are also referred to as the “fixed forms” in poetry due to the fact that they are made up of traditional patterns or structures of rhymes and line lengths which control the entire poem. Of all these traditional patterns that of the sonnet is considered as the most important. The major forms or types we shall study in this unit are: the epic; the ballad; the ode; the sonnet; the elegy; and the lyric.

The Epic

The epic is a poem composed or written on a grand scale, usually in many separate books or volumes, concerned with the exploits of some great national, historical or legendary character or hero. In other words, an epic celebrates in the form of a continuous narrative the feats of one or more heroic characters of history or tradition. Accordingly, as a rule, the epic treats a theme of lofty nature and consequently its characters are usually of high social standing or are very powerful forces. As is to be expected, the narrative of an epic is presented in such a way that the actions of the subject intimate and comment on the values and destiny of a particular people or race in spite of its episodic nature.

There are two major types of the epic, namely: the primary (folk) and the secondary (art) epics. A primary epic is the type that draws its sustenance mainly from the oral tradition of a people hence the label ‘folk’, while the secondary epic is a modification and reorganised version by identifiable or known authors.

This latter type is, as a result of its very basis and nature, written with much literary sophistication by poets who imitate the primary epic in both subject and manner.

Characteristics of an Epic

Whether folk or art, epics share a set of common general characteristics and conventions as follows:

  1. The poet commences his narration by stating his theme and invokes the Muse to inspire and instruct him in his task
  1. The story begins ‘in medias res’, that is in the middle of things and proceeds to recount the great deeds of the heroes with objectivity.
  1. The action in which supernatural forces participate is one, great and entire
  2. Story is of great length and scope with the action taking place over a long period of time and extending over several nations, the world of the poets; day or the imagined universe.
  1. The hero who is a person of great stature and legendary and historical significance and performs superhuman actions is more of the concern of the audience or reader because he symbolises the aspirations and destiny of his nation or race.
  1. Narrative style is grand and alternates between the sublime or sustained elevation and grand simplicity.
  1. Story includes elaborate formal speeches by the main characters.
  2. The constituent episodes of narrative easily arise from the main story and, as a result, there are no parts that could be detached from it without loss to the whole.
  1. Epic poet incorporates a long list of warriors, armies, war machines which necessitate employment of the fitting vehicle of the epic simile or extended comparison.

(NB: List which is by now normative relies mostly on Holman, Abrams, etc.)

Well known examples of the epic in English literature include the following:

  • Traditional/folk/primary – Homer’s Iliad, Odyssey; Anglo-Saxon Beowulf; the Indian Mahabharata, the French Chanson de Roland and the Spanish El Cid.
  • Art/Literary/Secondary – Virgil’s Aeneid; Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The term epic has also been loosely applied to other works, both poetry and prose, written on a grand scale and attempt or aspire to the spirit of the epic in matter/subject and manner/style. These include Dante’s Divine Comedy, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Ezra Pound’s Cantos and Niane’s Sundiata.


The ballad, one of the earliest form of poetry, is a song that tells a story or conversely a story told through song. Thus a ballad is a short narrative poem, adapted for singing, simple in plot and metrical in structure, divided into stanzas of four lines (quatrains) rhyming alternately and characterised by complete impersonality as far as the author or singer is concerned.

As in the epic, there are two main types of the ballad, namely: the folk ballad (also referred to as the popular or traditional ballad) and the art or literary ballad. These terms equally intimate the origins and nature of this type of poetry similar to the distinctions we have seen in the epic genre. Accordingly, a folk ballad is anonymous but we can safely infer that there must have been a poet since all poems are mostly composed by individual poets. According to Hugh Holman “debate still rages as to whether the ballad originates with an individual composer or as a group or communal activity” (52). Whether as individual or group composition, the personal emotions of the composer or poet do not manifest in his work. There is no first person singular (I), but where it strays in, it is always found in the context of the speech by identifiable characters in the poem to whom it refers. In studying the folk ballad, we are studying the poetry of the traditional people as different from the poetry of art as in the art ballad whose writer, who may modify and use folk materials, is known.

Thus, oral transmission is the medium of spreading the song of the folk ballad. There are different sub-categories of the ballad which include the ballads of history, of love, of humour and of domestic tragedy. Others include ballads of the domestic border and ballads derived from epic materials.

Features of the Ballad

Some common characteristic features of the ballad as a form of poetry should be noted to enable you identify, describe and critique when required, as follows:

  1. Impersonality and unsentimentality.
  2. Anonymity of authorship and consequent lack of authorial comments
  3. Simple repetition.
  4. Incremental repetition meant to slow down action and thus add to suspense and emphasise the points in a dialogue.
  1. Focus on a single episode.
  2. Use of dialogue to make action of story dramatic and compress and remove unnecessary descriptions and points.
  1. Absence or minimal utilisation of figures of speech.
  2. Use of refrains which aids musicality in the poem as well as perform the functions of repetition noted above (in #4).
  1. Stereotype or stock epithets and concrete diction.
  2. Quatrain stanzas.

As a general rule, the ballad uses a common measure of a four line stanza rhyming abab ; abcb or xaxa. You should note that in this rhyming pattern the first and third lines could rhyme (represented as ‘a’ in abab), while the second and fourth lines (represented as ‘b’) must rhyme. In some ballads, however, the first and third lines may not rhyme (as in abcb and xaxa, where ‘x’ represents ‘no rhyme’ and this deviation does not disqualify such lines as ballad stanzas.

The following are notable examples of the folk ballad and the art ballad which you should read in any good anthology of English poetry:

Folk/Popular/Traditional ballad – “Sir Patrick Spens”, “The Wife at Usher’s

Well”, “The Daemon Lover”, “Edward”, “The Three Ravens”, “Lord Randal”

and “The Twa Corbies”.


(1) Edward

“Why does your brand sae drop wi’ blude,

Edward, Edward?

Why does your brand sae drop wi’ blude,

And why sae sad gang ye, O?” –

“O I hae kill’d my hawk sae gude,

Mither, Mither;

O I hae kill’d my hawk sae gude,

And I had nae mair but he, O”.

(Reeves 4-6)

(2) Sir Patrick Spens

The king sits in Dunfermline town

Drinking the blude-red wine,

“O whare will I get a skeely skipper

To sail this new ship o’ mine?”

O up and spak an eldern knight,

Sat at the king’s right knee;

“Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor

That ever sailed the sea.”

(Reeves 7-10)

Art/Literary ballad – Scott’s “Proud Maisie”, John Keats’s “La Belle Dame

sans Merci”, Samuel T Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Robert

Burns’s “A Red, Red Rose” and “Anna”, Gerard M Hopkins’s “Felix Randal”.

(1) A Red, Red Rose

O my love is like a red, red rose

That’s newly sprung in June:

O my love is like the melody,

That’s sweetly played in tune.

As fair thou art, my bonnie lass,

So deep in love am I;

And I will love thee still, my dear,

Till a’ the seas gang dry.

(Reeves 60)

(2) Belle Dame sans Merci

“What can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge has withered from the lake,

And no birds sing.

“O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

So haggard and so woe-begone?

The squirrel’s granary is full,

And the harvest’s done

(Reeves 212-214 )


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