When it comes to writing poetry these days, it seems that the choice of Free Verse is king. People love having the freedom to write the poem how they want, following whatever rhyme and rhythm they desire without criticism. But for hundreds of years the standard was that poetry should have structure and form, following one of many varied patterns that added to the art of the composition. Before the novel was ever a thing, there was poetry in all shapes and sizes. Many great works of literature came in the form of epic poems, and one of those great works was written by a man named Edmund Spenser.
In the late 1500s, Edmund Spenser set out to write 12 books, each one chronicling the adventures of one of Gloriana’s knights. He managed to write six of them, plus a fragment, prior to his death. They follow, in order, Holiness (the Red Cross Knight), Temperance (Sir Guyon), Chastity (Britomart, a female knight), Friendship (Triamond and Cambello), Justice (Artegall), and Courtesy (Calidore). His setting was invented as the land of Faerie, and its queen Gloriana. And to tell these stories, he invented his own poetic structure which is now known as the Spenserian Stanza.
Each stanza consists of nine lines, the first eight lines having five stresses and the last having six. The rhyme pattern is ababbcbcc. The Faerie Queen books, Edmund Spenser himself, and the Spenserian stanzas were all unknown to me until a few years ago when a Professor introduced me to the Faerie Queen. And I instantly became a fan.
The imagery and flow of Spenser’s language was everything I had hoped to find in an epic poem. Here is a sample from the battle that the Red Cross Knight has with the dragon in Canto 11 of the first book:
The Knight ‘gan fairly Couch his steddy Spear,
And fiercely ran at him with rigorous Might:
The pointed Steel arriving rudely there,
His harder Hide would neither peirce nor bite,
But glauncing by, forth passed forward right;
Yet sure amoved with so puissant Push,
The wrathful Beast about him turned light,
And him so rudely passing by, did brush
With his long Tail, that Horse and Man to ground did rush.
Both Horse and Man up lightly rose again,
And fresh Encounter towards him address’d:
But th’ idle Stroke yet back recoil’d in vain,
And found no place his deadly Point to rest.
Exceeding Rage enflam’d the furious Beast,
To be avenged of so great Despight;
For, never felt his imperceable Breast
So wondrous Force from hand of living Wight;
Yet had he prov’d the power of many a puissant Knight.
Then with his waving Wings displayed wide,
Himself up high he lifted from the ground,
And with strong Flight did forcibly divide
The yielding Air, which nigh too feeble found
Her flitting parts, and Element unsound,
To bear so great a weight he cutting way
With his broad Sails, about him soared round
At last, low stouping with unwieldy sway,
Snatch’d up both Horse and Man, to bear them quite away.
The archaic language aside, the poetic form here is perfectly suited for narrating an epic encounter such as this. Which is why, when I set out to write my own short epic, I decided to use the same form as Edmund Spenser. This poem, “Taking Down Goliath”, is still seeking a home to be published, but I thought it this post would be a fitting place to share a stanza or two.
A dark figure towers over the lines
of King’s standing army, covering ground
swiftly with each great stride. Armor entwines
his large body. His balding head is crowned
with steel plated, encircling its round
face. Its scarlet eye, as big as a fist,
scans through the crowd of men gathered around.
A more fearsome cyclops does not exist,
wearing white bones of men he slayed upon his wrist.
His massive maw opens, a vast bellow
bursts forth, “Is there no man here who is bold
enough to accept my charge, no fellow
who thinks their might meets mine? I hold
no tricks, no deceitful lies have I told,
only seeking a soul who will wager
his life against mine. Come forward, uphold
your glorious kingdom against nature.
Grapple and spar with me, come forth into danger.”
I was told, when I wrote “Taking Down Goliath”, that it was an impressive piece of work (over 200 lines in length) but that there was no real market for epic fantasy poetry. And so far it has been a challenge to find a place for the poem to get published. But I am adamant in my conviction that there is a market out there and, once I find it, I may even try my hand at a truly epic poem like Spenser and the great poets of old used to write.
What is your favorite long poem, epic or otherwise? Along with The Faerie Queene, I also enjoy Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Troilus and Criseyde.
The bigger question is how can this type of writing be transposed to modern day? We don’t speak like that anymore, and It’s been a long time since I have seen an epic poem, especially now.
That’s a good question. I almost think for today’s audience it would have to be set to music, or be paired with video of some kind.
I admit that I haven’t read very many epic poems, but I do remember enjoying The Odyssey way back in High School. It captured my imagination and stuck with me. I’m sure Homer never imagined people would still be reading his works thousands of years into the future. A testament to Homer, but also to epic poems as an art form.