Books

10 Long Poems I Love

I don’t think I’ve ever done a recommendations list like this before but I love long poems so I thought it might be nice to share some of my favourites! They’re all over 1,000 lines long (and some are much longer) and I’ve tried to stay away from some of the most popular ones but a lot of these poems are classics so they’re very well-known.

All title links take you to free online English versions of the poems. They may not be the best editions but they are free ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Aeneid by Virgil (29–19 BCE)

  • A Latin epic poem of 9,896 lines in dactylic hexameter
  • Virgil’s poem tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who fled the fall of Troy and travelled to Italy. The first six books depict his wanderings from Troy to Italy and the final six books depict the war in Italy.
  • Virgil died before he could edit the poem (and legend says that instructed the manuscript to be burnt but that clearly didn’t happen) so we’ll never know what he wanted to change.
  • I’ve linked to the Perseus Project but there are multiple editions available online. I’ve read many verse translations over the years and I’d recommend doing the same.

De Rerum Natura by Lucretius (First-century BCE)

  • Divided into six untitled books, this didactic poem consists of 7,400 dactylic hexameters. It’s probably unfinished and it ends rather abruptly.
  • The poem looks at a number of different topics including the mortality of the soul, the senses, the early development of the world, and dreams.
  • Fun fact, I once wrote about this poem and received a comment stating that ‘the only book that accurately portrays the universe is the King James Bible’.
  • Another fun fact, Lucretius was a flat-earther.
  • Again, I’d recommend reading a bunch of translations because why not.

Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)

  • An Italian narrative poem made up of 14,233 lines that are divided into three cantiche.
  • The poem is a first-person narrative depicting the state of the soul after death and Dante travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise/Heaven with the help of three guides. Virgil, our author of the Aeneid, is Dante’s guide through Hell and most of Purgatory. He finds Dante lost in a dark woodland at the beginning of the poem, saving him from sin.
  • It allegorically represents the soul’s journey toward God in accordance with medieval Catholic philosophy. The Inferno represents the Christian soul seeing sin for what it really is, Purgatorio represents the repentant Christian life, and Paradiso represents the soul’s ascension to God.
  • Inferno is the most famous section but I really like the entire poem. I find Purgatorio interesting because it’s about temptation rather than action – which is a very important distinction within the poem – and Paradiso includes some beautiful imagery.
  • Avoid editions that only include Inferno.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th century)

  • 2,530 lines with stanzas of alliterative verse
  • This iconic poem was written in a North West Midlands dialect of Middle English by an unknown poet. The date is also unknown.
  • Gawain is a chivalric romance from the fourteenth century and it is one of the best-known Arthurian stories. It combines English, Welsh, Irish, and French traditions and it centres around the popular motif of the beheading game
  • When I’m not in the mood to read Middle English, I tend to gravitate towards the Broadview Press edition by James Winny but I’ve linked to Luminarium because they recommend a couple of different translations that are available for free as well as a transcript.  

The Assembly of Gods (15th century)

  • 2,107 lines arranged into 301 seven-line stanzas. The rhyme pattern is ABABBCC (rhyme royal) which was popular at the time but the meter is irregular.
  • Both the date and author are unknown but it was first printed by Wynken de Worde in 1498.
  • It’s a dream vision poem that is split into five sections: an introduction, three narrative episodes, and a conclusion. It depicts a battle between Vice and Virtue and at the end of the poem, the dreamer wakes up and instructs people to learn from his dream. It’s very similar to a medieval morality play but it includes pagan deities (as well as Vice, Virtue, Perseverance, Freewill, and your other standard medieval personifications of the sins and virtues) instead of the Christian God.
  • This isn’t a popular poem. At all. There are only a couple of editions available, as far as I know, and none of them are in modern English. Let’s face it, this is the type of poem that you only come across when you’re assigned it for a medieval and early modern literature module at university. But I really enjoyed reading it and that’s why it’s on this list.
  • You should probably only read this if you’re comfortable with Middle English or if you’re prepared to spend a while sounding out the words until you realise that it’s mostly recognisable English spelt in a weird way. (Keyword here being “mostly”).
  • Here’s a sample: Syttyng all solytary alone besyde a lake, / Musyng on a manere how that I myght make / Reason and Sensualyté in oon to acorde. / But I cowde nat bryng about that monacorde.

The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser (1590, 1596)

  • This poem is over 36,000 lines, split into six books, and it’s written in Spenserian stanzas. That’s a verse form that Spenser invented in this poem. Each stanza contains nine lines: eight lines are in iambic pentameter and these are followed by a single ‘alexandrine’ line in iambic hexameter. The rhyme scheme is ABABBCBCC.
  • On the surface, the poem follows several knights as a means to examine virtues. Each knight embodies a different virtue and most of the books look at a specific virtue. So, book one depicts the virtue of holiness, book two is about Temperance, book three is centred on Chastity (embodied by Britomart, a lady knight), the fourth book is a Courtesy continuation of the third book, the fifth book focuses on Justice, and the final book is about Courtesy.
  • The Faerie Queene also alludes to the people and events of Spenser’s own time. Duessa can be read as a rather negative depiction of Mary, Queen of Scots and several characters, including the Faerie Queen, can be read as personifications of Queen Elizabeth. Some representations of the Queen were complimentary and some were not.
  • This is honestly one of my favourite poems of all time.

Queen Mab by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1813)

  • Around 2,335 lines of blank verse in nine cantos with seventeen notes
  • It was dedicated to his first wife, Harriet, but this dedication was removed when Mary Shelley published Percy’s poems in 1839.
  • As the title suggests, the poem is written in the form of a fairy tale but it’s a utopian vision based on Shelley’s philosophies. Queen Mab is described as a fairy in Mercutio’s famous speech from Romeo and Juliet and Shelley is clearly building upon this idea in the poem as she shows visions of the past, present, and the future.
  • The poem also describes Shelley’s theory of revolution and, in her notes on the work, Mary Shelley states that her husband’s objective was to show that reform and improvement were possible by moral means.
  • It’s an unusual poem but I find it fascinating.

Endymion by John Keats (1818)

  • This poem is approximately 4,000 lines and is split into four books. It’s written in rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter AKA heroic couplets and it’s based on the Greek myth of Endymion.
  • I love John Keats so I had to include one of his poems in this list. I’ll admit that Endymion isn’t my favourite of his poems but it’s still wonderful.
  • It received mixed reviews during Keats’ time and Keats himself thought it was unappealing but it was part of a learning experience for him. In the preface to the poem, Keats wrote that ‘it is not without a feeling of regret’ that Endymion was made public because it represented ‘inexperience, immaturity, and […] a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished’ but I’m glad it was published because it demonstrates progression and artistic integrity.
  • The link above takes you to Book I but all four books are available on the same website.

In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1850)

  • The poem is 2,916 lines and consists of a prologue, 131 numbered sections, and an epilogue. It’s written in four-line ABBA stanzas of iambic tetrameter and this form is now referred to as a Memoriam stanza.
  • In Memoriam is poem is dedicated to Arthur Henry Hallam, Tennyson’s friend, who died at the age of 22. Tennyson wrote the poem over 17 years, even adding to it after it was published, and it chronicles his thoughts and emotions in the years that followed his friend’s sudden death. It’s a poem about grief but it’s also a form of grieving as he seems to use the poem to cope with Hallam’s death.
  • It’s a very emotional work but, in a strange way, it’s also very comforting.

Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1856)

  • This is a strange poem that is both an epic poem and a novel. Barrett Browning referred to it as ‘a novel in verse’. It’s over 11,000 lines and split into nine books.
  • The poem is a first-person narration in blank verse and it recounts the life of Aurora, the title character.
  • I love the intertextual references that are scattered throughout as the poem references Biblical and classical history, mythology, and contemporaneous novels.

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