Narrative poems tell a story about characters progressing through a plot in verse form. Narrative poems were often told or performed verbally for an audience. For example, the "Epic of Gilgamesh" and the "Iliad" are about great deeds of heroes, whereas the American folk song "Jesse James" is a ballad. Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" represents a mock-epic narrative poem.
Most stories, especially in ancient times, were conveyed orally rather than written down and read, so strong oral traditions developed that used poetic devices, such as alliteration and meter, to aid in memory. Eventually some of these stories were transcribed in their verse form. Oral poetry is usually about gods, heroes or folk histories and includes the "Nibelungenlied," Homer's epics "Iliad" and "Odyssey," the "Epic of Gilgamesh," the poems of the "Elder Edda," tales of Robin Hood and the "Popul Vuh."
Narrative poems are generally divided into categories, including epics, mock-epics, ballads and idylls. Epics, such as John Milton's "Paradise Lost," are concerned with great and serious events. Heroes are usually larger than life, and they are likely to encounter the supernatural. Mock-epics utilize traditional epic conventions and techniques, implying great importance to insignificant or commonplace occurrences. Ballads are narrative poems that are sung to a melody. This is one of the most common folk traditions in nearly every culture throughout history. Idylls, beginning with Theocritus' "Idylls," deal with stories about simple, good lives, usually in a rural setting away from worldly cares.