The long poem, if we rightly exclude the dramatic, comes in three varieties: narrative, including epic; philosophical, including existential; and metaphysical, including religious. And, of course, in any combination of the above. When we, here and now, think “long poem,” we usually mean Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, maybe Blake, and probably Yeats and Eliot. What is perspicuous is how much most of these depend on plot: how many nonacademics push beyond the Inferno or plod on to Paradise Regained?

Yet the plot is not a basic constituent of the poetic, except perhaps as a hurdle. Prose can do its job, with some minor losses, much better. Homer resorted to verse as a mnemonic device in a largely preliterate age. Others followed because it was the tradition, and because the novel in prose had not yet caught on. Once it did, it was goodbye, epic poetry. As a nonheroic narrative, the long poem is even more cumbersome:...

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