How Poetry Works

The Evolution of Poetry

A good place to start when looking back at how poetry has evolved over time is with epic poetry. Most of the earliest known poetry was a form of epic poetry, some of which dates back centuries before humans began writing down their stories. One of the earliest poetic works, the "Epic of Gilgamesh," dates back to around 2000 B.C., when it was part of the oral tradition of the Sumerians. Researchers think that this suggests that poetry and poetic styling was originally developed to help storytellers, who often acted as historians, memorize their stories more easily. As a written text, the epic poem about King Gilgamesh dates back to around 1000 B.C.

The ancient Greeks and Romans, between about 1200 B.C. and A.D. 455, were also known for their great epic poetry. Two of the most famous Greek poets were Homer, who wrote the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey," and Hesiod, who wrote "Works and Days." The ancient Greeks used poetry in music and theater, and loved to write about their gods and the heroic deeds of great people.


By medieval times -- about 455 to 1485 -- poets began to play with both the subject matter and language of their poems. Some medieval poets, like Geoffrey Chaucer, even experimented with writing in the language of the common people, known as vernacular. Before that, most scholarly and artistic works were written in Latin.

During the Renaissance period (1485-1660), poets got even more creative. They developed new structures and forms of meter. Playwrights like William Shakespeare and Thomas Marlowe incorporated poetry in their plays, in what is known as verse drama. Structures and styles, as well as adding layers of meaning to poems, became very popular.

During the Enlightenment period (1660-1790), there was a big interest in returning to the styles of the classical Greeks. There was a lot of emphasis on formal styles and discipline in writing during this time.

During the Romantic period (1790-1830), on the other hand, there was a big departure from the methods of poets during the Enlightenment. The Romantics were all about finding new ways to express themselves. Romantic writers focused on individuality and nature, and valued creativity over logic. Poets, like Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, explored new forms and themes during this time. In the United States, new poetic styles emerged out of the transcendentalist movement. Transcendentalists wanted to break away from the established institutions of society. Like the Romantic writers in England, they focused on creativity, nature and individuality.

During the Victorian period (1832-1901), writers continued to break away from the established forms and structures that had been developing during the previous literary periods. Poets like Walt Whitman began writing in free verse, or completely without meter.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, there have been many changes to the way poetry is written and read. Read on to find out more.