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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: July 2010

15 - Narrative poetry

from Part III - Genres and modes


Narrative is one of three broad poetic genres in the Western literary tradition. As lyric poetry traces its origins in song and dramatic poetry in religious ritual, so narrative poetry is associated with history and philosophy, particularly the lineage, exploits and ideas of one's own tribe or people. The mnemonic structures of poetic rhythms undoubtedly served an oral tradition as, later, they were seen to serve what Aristotle called the impulse towards harmony. Early modern women poets inherited not only this broad tradition but specific sub-genres and modes of narrative as they evolved through the Middle Ages, notably through courtly romance and stories of the fall of the great, and were re-invented in the sixteenth century on such classical models as Ovidian and historical or epic narratives. In general, educated women had less exposure to Greek and Latin texts than their brothers and found their narrative models in popular English texts. The most popular verse narratives of the earlier Elizabethan period were the 'tragedies' produced by William Baldwin and others in the Mirror for Magistrates (1559-87), a series of poems in the tradition of Boccaccio's Fall of Princes. In the later part of Elizabeth's reign erotic Ovidian narratives, including Marlowe's Hero and Leander and Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, gained popular attention. Both Mirror and Ovidian models fed into other popular narrative genres of the late Elizabeth and early Jacobean period, including the historical and epistolary narratives of Samuel Daniel and Michael Drayton.

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