Classic Writings on Poetry - William Harmon 2003



In the beginning, let us say, people used language for practical purposes exclusively. Then these literal ancestors of ours discovered that they could augment the practical with the aesthetic, and poetry was born—poetry defined loosely as language used in a special way and for a special purpose beyond immediate practicalities. It remains possible, however, that the order of evolution was reversed, and that poetry came first and practicality second; some speculate that even pottery was first ornamental or ritual in purpose and only later found to be useful for cooking and storage.

Whatever the order of the first two stages—communication then poetry, poetry then communication—it is likely that the third stage involved reflection on poetry, which we usually call criticism. Early in these early days, a poet wrote something like

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid

Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire …,

at which any normal, intelligent reader might bridle. One would have to note, first, that it is not one’s heart that becomes pregnant; second, that what something gets pregnant with is not fire; third, that fire is not normally described as celestial—quite the contrary, fire is often considered infernal. One might demand, “Is this surrealist? Or just nonsensical?” A scholar would have to answer, “No, it’s just conventional mid-eighteenth-century poesy.” In fact, it is Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” a mine of clichés for almost three centuries: “short and simple annals of the poor,” “paths of glory,” “far from the madding crowd,” “purest ray serene.” These questions and objections mark the point where the immediate, practical use of language gives way to some use beyond the immediate or the practical—such as education—and seems to exist at least in part for itself. And it is here that criticism becomes interesting and valuable and vexed.

Poetry resists absolute definitions. Something that seems inseparable from and vital to poetry in one culture will be unintelligible or ridiculous in another. Rhyme, for example, has been an incidental blemish of prose in many literatures, especially those of classical antiquity (Sanskrit, Greek, Latin); in time, however, in the poetry of Europe, rhyme turned into an ornament so important that “rhyme” itself virtually came to mean “poem,” as in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” During the Middle Ages, when unrhymed quantitative verse still persisted from antiquity, particularly in the language of the Christian church, which was dedicated to the preservation of Latin, rhymed accentual verse was introduced for certain religious texts set to music, but rhyme was so alien to true poetry, according to many conservatives, that such texts were called “proses.” The honorific term “verse” was kept for old-fashioned poems (for example, “Adeste Fideles,” still sung today, does not rhyme in Latin or English). Accordingly, in the early fifteenth century, “in prose” could mean “in rhyme.” (To insult a kind of verse by calling it prose persisted for centuries, as when in 1880 Matthew Arnold delivered a famous verdict, “Dryden and Pope are not classics of our poetry, they are classics of our prose.”)

Sound effects do not constitute the only slippery characteristic of poetry. Rhetorical devices, so crucial to much Western poetry, also contribute to incomprehension. The English poet George Barker taught in Japan just before World War II. As Barker’s fellow poet John Heath-Stubbs tells it:

George had some difficulty in getting the Japanese students adequately to understand English poetry. He set them for comment a poem of A. E. Housman … beginning “The chestnut casts its flambeaux.” The students came to him in a body and said: “We find this poem extremely obscure. We have looked up the words in the dictionary, and it appears to say that the chestnut tree is throwing away torches. We cannot comprehend how a chestnut tree can have torches to throw away.” The reason for this misunderstanding was that classical Japanese poetry makes no use whatsoever of metaphor or simile.

John Heath-Stubbs, Hindsights: An Autobiography (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993), 147; also recounted in Robert Fraser, The Chameleon Poet:

A Life of George Barker (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001).

That account may not accurately register the entire truth about Japanese language and literature, but the general experience will be familiar.

Beyond the levels of sound and rhetoric, between different poetics there may also be incomprehension or miscomprehension of language and concept. Ancient Hebrew poetry seems to have relied more on grammatical patterns than on any conceptual or acoustic patterns that would be familiar to speakers of an Indo-European language. Translators of the Bible have recognized that parts of it are poetry, but it is usually printed as prose. Even so, the standard subdivisions, which have been used for almost five hundred years, suggest prose and poetry together: chapters as in prose, verses as in poetry, even though the verses are printed as prose.

Since the criticism of literature is itself a species of literature, complications become exponential and controversy begins almost immediately. Among many other causes of conflict, poets and the critics of poetry disagree about diction and rhetoric. Seldom has a poem sounded remotely like real speech, but seldom has a poet failed to claim that he or she writes the way normal people talk. Everybody professes an earnest preference for the simple and direct, but any writer coming even close to simple and direct is quickly forgotten, while those who are most complex and indirect—Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot—command respect. Even the celebrated minimalist Thoreau had to say, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” and “Simplify, simplify,” which are practically contradictions in terms—likewise, Blake’s “To generalize is to be an idiot.”

But the definitions of both generalization and idiocy change with time; the hits of one age become the laughingstock of the next. Samuel Johnson tears Milton’s “Lycidas” to pieces for its inconsistency and presumed insincerity. William Wordsworth likewise flays Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” for its pompous redundancy. According to William Hazlitt’s description of Wordsworth:

Nothing … can be fairer, or more amusing than the way in which he sometimes exposes the unmeaning verbiage of modern poetry. Thus, in the beginning of Dr. Johnson’s “Vanity of Human Wishes”—

Let observation with extensive view

Survey mankind from China to Peru—

he says there is a total want of imagination accompanying the words; the same idea is repeated three times under the disguise of a different phraseology. It comes to this: “let observation with extensive observation observe mankind”; or take away the first line, and the second, “Survey mankind from China to Peru,” literally conveys the whole.

It does not matter much that Johnson’s satirical poem imitates a precursor by Juvenal that mocks pompous diction. Eighteenth-century satirists seem to have experimented with maximal redundancy, the prize going to one of Pope’s couplets: “Or alom-stypticks with contracting pow’r / Shrink his thin essence like a rivelled flow’r,” which says the same thing at least five times over.

Johnson tore Milton, Wordsworth tore Johnson, and Wordsworth himself came in for all sorts of tearing from later poets, including Byron, Hartley Coleridge, Robert Browning, James Kenneth Stephen, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Aldous Huxley—all of whom, in their turn, have been torn, ad infinitum. It remains obvious, as it was obvious in the dim days of the evolution of language, that poetry is a most engaging thing. It is there; it exists necessarily, as does its criticism.


This sampling starts with a few pieces from classical antiquity and extends its reach to the early twentieth century. Out of the thousands of things written on poetry, these have kept their freshness and pertinence for modern readers of English. The answers and solutions change from age to age, but the questions and problems persist, often in much the same form as that employed by Aristotle or Horace. As later critics return to the perennial puzzles addressed by the Greeks and Romans, there may be some danger of reinventing the wheel. But wheels need to be reinvented now and again, lest they lose their shape. In none of the documents is poetry as such distinguished very crisply from prose. Aristotle’s Poetics has to do with much besides poetry itself, however defined, and many of his observations would apply to works in prose as well those in verse. That flexibility may have something to do with the origin of the words poem and poetry.

Poem seems to begin as a past participle of a Greek verb meaning “to make,” so that a poem is rather vaguely construed as a product, and poetics is the study of how such a product is produced. Possibly the meaning of poem has always been evasive and figurative—the sort of usage that we reserve for special subjects, such as religion and emotion, about which it is impossible to be precise. A poem is anything composed, so that John Milton, in one of his prose pamphlets of the 1640s, could suggest, “He who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought him selfe to be a true Poem, that is a composition and patterne of the best and honourablest things.”


I hope to show that while poetry has been many things to many sorts of people, it has not been remote from the daily lives and work of ordinary people. That is by no means to say that poetry itself is ordinary or simple; it isn’t. But if you stay alert, you can hear poetry in many places besides a classroom. You probably heard poetry on the day you were born, even though you could not comprehend it; after you pass away, poetry may be spoken over your remains, even though you will not hear it. We have always reserved poetry for the special things and occasions. It means so much to us that we believe poetry comprises some of the best works ever produced by the species. Poetry allows the ordinary to become extraordinary for a time; some people, possibly not model family members or citizens or scholars or even warriors, have touched sublime genius thanks to poetry. If you cannot believe that enterprises such as Comedy and Tragedy, the love lyric, the epic, and Choric songs are superintended by the great goddesses who are the very daughters of Memory and Zeus himself, then you are in for a revelation and maybe a conversion. The heights of expression have been reached in poetry, and poetry therefore commands some of our best attention. It remains a mystery; even the mechanical aspects are mysterious. But we have never stopped thinking about it.