Novels in Verse

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At first they were called epic poems; now they are likely to be called novels in verse. Usually I find that when a story is told in verse, that provides an extra dimension to the work, an added attraction. The discipline of rhyme causes the author to try harder to find the exact wording to convey their thoughts more precisely, more rhythmically. Kat at mirabile dictu has entirely convinced me to read  ‘The Aeneid’ by Virgil, the Robert Fagles translation. In the meantime, these are the novels in verse that I have liked the best.

The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth (1986) – This San Francisco story was my first novel in verse, a complete delight. The entire novel is 690 sonnets. I still look back warmly on the humor and style of this book.

      Only her cats provide distraction,
      Twin paradigms of lazy action.
      It’s Friday night. The unfettered city
      Resounds with hedonistic glee
      John holds a cold cast of self pity.

If you appreciate the above, you will enjoy ‘The Golden Gate’.

The Inferno by Dante Aleghieri (1308 – 1321) Translated by Robert Pinsky – A guided tour through the nine circles of hell, all in verse. This epic poem is very readable and enjoyable, even though it is a trip through hell. Someday I’ll read the entire Divine Comedy.

31ERNCE3TXLAutobiography of Red by Anne Carson (1999 ) A story from the Greek myth of Herakles and the monster Geryon. This is an original work by Anne Carson, not a translation. This book is both humorous and moving.

Don Juan by Lord Byron (1819 – 1824) – Most of the poetry of Keats and Shelley just flies over my head, but this satiric epic poem by Lord Byron is very easy to follow and a complete joy.

Fredy Neptune by Les Murray (1998) – an action packed Australian adventure novel in verse. This novel covers so much ground, I won’t try to summarize it.

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (1825 – 1832) Translated by Vladimir Nabokov. I came to this book after about covering the rest of 19th century Russian literature. Originally the fact that it was in verse kept me from reading this book. When I finally did read it, the verse only made the book more interesting.

Beowulf (8th to 11th century) translated by Seamus Heaney – Believed to be composed by Anglo-Saxons during the Viking age, our hero fights monsters like Grendel and dragons. Seamus Heaney did a great job re-creating this work.

Ludlow by David Mason (2007) – a true American story in a verse novel. The coal miners of Ludlow, Colorado go on strike in 1914, one of the cruelest, bloodiest chapters in the history of American labor. The verse novel strategy works brilliantly. This book which I only read two years ago makes me long for new verse novels.

th_play_1999_oresteia_paperback_webThe Oresteia by Aeschylus translated by Ted Hughes (5th century BC) – I’ve read both the Anne Carson version and the Ted Hughes version of the Oresteia, and I loved them both. Since Anne Carson already has a place on my list, I want to also give a place to Ted Hughes who is also a poet I really like.

As you can see, I’ve only come up with nine favorite verse novels. I hope some of you out there can recommend more.

15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by steve in minneapolis on September 10, 2010 at 3:48 AM

    Anthony Burgess’s “Byrne” is adroitly witty in Don Juan sort of way. You could also try W. S. Merwin’s rhapsodic book about a leprosy outbreak in 19th century Hawaii (improbably enough),”The Folding Cliffs”. Daryl Hine’s two book-length verse memoirs “Academic Festival Overtures” and “In and Out” are technical tours de force treating his dawning awareness of his homosexuality.

    I was looking through “Academic Festival Overtures” again and can’t resist giving a sample of the effortless, sophisticated verse found there:

    Our interest, indeed belief in the existence
    Of certain fictional characters, such as God,
    Outside their original, literary setting,
    Is a tribute not only to artistic fraud —
    What E. M. Forster calls ‘faking’ — but to the reader’s
    Naive or knowledgeable gullibility
    Which, not content with Happily Ever After,
    Wants to know the hero’s subsequent history,
    As if life, which furnishes so few happy endings,
    Could improve upon the false symmetry of art,
    Or with its unpredictability and failures
    Had any palatable lesson to impart.


  2. Hi Steve in Minneapolis,
    These lines you quote from Daryl Hines are intriguing. They sure are original carrying more ideas per line than most poems. The rhymes are unique – “God” and “fraud”, “gullibility” and “history”. I think this is a verse novel I will need to read more of to really appreciate – “Academic Festival Overture”. These are lines that require a lot of thought in order to discover the complete impact. Thank you for bringing them to my attention. I’m also interested in W. S. Merwin, although I’ve never read his work.


  3. Posted by steve in minneapolis on September 10, 2010 at 4:50 PM

    It is probably fair to say in that looking for a fragment that would stand on its own as a set piece I have given a mis-impression of Hine’s book. Most of it is in a straight-forward, almost breezy, memoir style and is not at all difficult to digest (although just as skillful). His other book is in unrhymed anapests.


  4. I’ll check this book out – “Summer Festival Overtures” by Daryl Hine.


  5. Posted by steve in minneapolis on September 11, 2010 at 3:32 AM

    Just notice though that the title is Academic (not Summer) Festival Overture (named after an orchestral work by Brahms).


  6. […] I’ve been reading about verse novels as well as reading examples of the form as preparation for writing my own epic – as they’re […]


  7. […] Literature, Poetry, Writing Tags: poetry, verse novels 0 Lately, I’ve been reading about verse novels as well as reading examples of the form as preparation for writing my own epic – as they’re […]


  8. Two excellent verse novels:

    After the Lost War by Andrew Hudgins

    Sonata Mullatica by Rita Dove


  9. Hi,

    Perhaps, you’d like to hear this verse novel from New Zealand (currently being broadcast on Radio New Zealand):

    Or, you can catch up with the episodes at:



  10. Posted by Olivia on May 21, 2011 at 4:13 AM

    There are two outstanding contemporary novels to add to your list. Darlington’s Fall: A Novel in Verse by Brad Leithausen, published 2002,is excellent, telling the adventures of an entomologist, born in Indiana in 1888. Derek Walcott’s Omeros, published in 1990, is written in tercets and is set on the Island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. Walcott received the 1992 Nobel Literature Prize. I highly recommend both of these works.


  11. Hi Olivia,
    Thank you for your excellent suggestions. I’m very familiar with Brad Leithauser’s work, having read his novels ‘Hence’ and ‘Equal Distance’. I remember being very impressed with his writing, but kind of lost track of him in recent years.

    Derek Walcott’s Omeros is one of those books I keep meaning to read. Perhaps your suggestion will give me the impetus to actually read it. Thank You.


  12. I loved The Golden Gate even if I suspect I didn’t catch all the poetry there since English isn’t my native language. Well, I understood enough to find it fantastic.


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