What is Poetry ?
It is difficult to define poetry in cast-iron formula; Poetry has been variously
defined. Johnson defines poetry as ‘metrical composition’; Wordsworth defines
it as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”: he further says that
poetry “is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all
science”. According to Matthew Arnold, poetry is “simply the most
delightful and perfect form of utterance that human words can reach”.
Edgar Allan Poe says that poetry is “the rhythmic creation of
beauty”. Mr Watts Dunton defines poetry as “the concrete and artistic
expression of the human mind in emotional and rhythmical language”.
These definitions of
poetry are not exhaustive enough to include all the elements of poetry, nor
do they recognize what is specifically called poetry. We can no more define
poetry than we can define life or love. But we can understand what is poetry
by its attributes and by its effects upon us. Poetry expresses some feelings
and attempts to awaken the corresponding emotions in the heart of another. The
greatest poet is he who has felt the most of all the things that move the
hearts of men and felt them most deeply, and can touch the most hearts to
the term “poetry” (ancient Greek: poieo
– create) is an art form in which human language is used for its aesthetic
qualities. The Greek verb poieo (make
or create), gave birth to three different words: poietis (the one who creates), poiesis
(the act of creation), and poiana
(the thing created). From where we get three English words: poet (the creator),
poesy (the creation) and poem (the created). A poet is therefore one who creates, and poetry is what the poet
Poetry attempts to
communicate a genuine emotion. Poets who are more sensitive than the ordinary
men are moved by the beauty of things and seek to transmit that sense of beauty
in others. Art finds and reveals beauty in everything under the sun. It is not
the thing but the saying that moves us, not the matter but the manner of its
presentation. An artist can make sad things beautiful and sordid things
wonderful as Hardy has done in his novels and poetry. Creation of beautiful
forms and communication of pleasurable feelings through these forms are the
staple of good art.
Mr. G. K. Chesterton in his
clever attack on Mr. Hardy’s art, assumes with Matthew Arnold that ‘art should
show us things as they are’ ; but art has nothing to do with the truth of
things as they are, but with the impression they make on the artist’s mind. Art
is the expression of the artist’s mood, not the representation of objective
fact. “To a poet in a lover’s mood the sea smiles with him in his joy, the winds whisper the name of
his beloved, the stars look down on him like friendly eyes, to the same poet,
in another mood, the same sea looks grim and cruel, the winds mock his sighs,
and the cold stars watch him with a passionless inscrutable gaze.” Thus in poetry,
the emotion imagination of the poet plays a significant part in the
interpretation of life. The poet interprets life as it shapes itself through
his mood and imagination
Emotion is not poetry, but the cause of poetry and
emotional expression is only poetry when it takes a beautiful form. To exist as
poetry, emotion must be translated into music and visual images, clear and
beautiful. Ideas are given emotional equivalents in poetry and made vivid and
inspiring through music and pictures.
Aristotle defines poetry as
‘modes of imitation of human actions.’ He also indicates the importance of
imagination. A poet is a creator, not a mere imitator of reality. A. C. Bradley
says : poetry strikes us as ‘creation’, and the nature of poetry “is to be
not a part, nor yet a copy of the real world…but to be a world by itself,
independent, complete and autonomous”. A poet, however, interprets life in
objective terms and the values contained in a poem are embodied and dramatized
in the poem’s evolving meanings, imagery and symbols. Thus music, images, words
are important in offering the poet’s interpretation of life.
It is true that music, words
and images are important for creating an objective picture of truth in poetry,
but mere technical virtuosity or sheer music is not enough for good poetry. The
vital distinction between music and poetry is that while music enchants us by
pure sound, the appeal of poetry springs from the effect upon us of sound with
a clearly defined intellectual content, perfectly fused with it. Poetry has not
only an emotional appeal, it has an intellectual appeal. Its intellectual
appeal derives from the words and images which are intellectual symbols of the
Again, sheer music or mere
tapestry of words and images cannot satisfy the readers. There must be some
meaning in a poem. Spenser’s exquisite melody expresses some facer of his
beautiful self, while Swinburne’s poetry cloys us with mere virtuosity. The
essentially poetic quality in a poem is to be sought not in an alliance with
music, not in an alliance with prayer, but in the perfect rightness of language
to convey a passionately felt experience.
Poetry is generally of two kinds- subjective poetry and objective
poetry. The lyric belongs to
subjective poetry because a lyric is the expression of the poet’s personal
feelings. It is contrasted with the epic and dramatic poetry because in lyric
poetry, the poet is principally occupied with himself. A lyric poet expresses
his own mood, feeling or emotion that comes to him at a particular moment. He
communicates his deeply-felt emotion in words and passes it to the reader, and if
the reader is moved or thrilled by the emotion of the poet, the poet is said to
be successful. Personal lyric poetry passes into meditative and philosophic
poetry in which the element of thought is important. Here thought is given an
emotional equivalent and is made vivid and moving by the beauty of imagery and
richness of language.
Composed on a few miles on the Tintern Abbey is a philosophical poem. But
Pope’s Essay on Man is a versified
treatise rather than a poem. Elegy and Ode fall into the category of lyric
Epic and dramatic poetry
belong to objective or impersonal poetry. While in lyric poetry, the
poet looks into his heart to write, and even draws the outer world down into
himself and steeps it in his own emotions; in objective poetry, he projects
himself into the life without. In lyric poetry, the poet expresses himself
immediately and directly, while in objective poetry, the poet reveals himself
indirectly through what he represents and creates.
But in objective poetry, the
poet is not intrusive; the poet remains more or less in the background. But in
lyrical poetry the poet is very much in the foreground and is self-intrusive.
He speaks in his own person and impresses us with his own thoughts, feelings
and moods. But in objective poetry, the poet creates characters and situations
and speaks out their thoughts and emotions with detachment. His interpretation
of life gleams forth through the impersonal forms that he creates. Such
impersonal poetry falls into two groups-narrative poetry and dramatic poetry.
A narrative poem is
one that tells a story. There are different types of poetry. The two
basic types are epic and ballad. Metrical romance is considered a third basic
type. Story telling in verse form is thought to have its beginning in the
chanting of myth relating to ritual. Both ballad and epic were originally sung
or chanted. It was usually accompanied by a musical instrument, the function of
which was to maintain the poetry rhythm of the line and of composition.
The ballad is a short story in verse and it is mainly occupied with the
narration of tales of adventure, fighting and valour. Many of these ballads
have immense dramatic power and wonderful metrical skill.
The epic has a larger
canvas, a greater variety of characters, elevation of style and sustained
narrative power. Many poets of the nineteenth century had a shot at narrative
poetry. Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry marks the
revival of ancient ballad poetry, Sir Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last
Minstrel, The Lay of the Lake, Marmion are good narrative
poems. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the
Ancient Mariner, Christabel, Wordsworth’s Michael, The Prelude, Byron’s Childe
Harold’s Pilgrimage, Keats’ The Eve
of St. Agnes, Tennyson’s Idylls of
the King are good examples of modern narrative poetry.
Dramatic poetry is to be distinguished from the drama
proper. Browning excelled in writing dramatic poetry in which a character is
depicted under the impact of an intense situation. The character speaks out his
mind under the stress of the situation. A background is etched and the
character is revealed through his self-communings. Robert Browning’s The Last Ride Together, Rabbi Ben Ezra, My Last Duchess, Tennyson’s Ulysses
are examples of dramatic poetry. Here the poet creates characters and depicts
them with detachment. The poet does not intrude on the poem. But it has all the
ingredients of poetry–music, rhyme, images and pictures. Shakespeare’s plays
have good dramatic poetry.
The limits of categories shift from generation to
generation. The poetic categories such as lyric, narrative and dramatic are not
wholly fixed. The 20th century has prized the dramatic highly: thus its
emphasis is to show rather than tell. According to modern critics like Hume, T.
S. Eliot, etc, all arts aim at objectification of feelings. Thus arts are
impersonal because they seek to obliterate the personality of the author from
the works. Modern poets speak through interior monologues or assume masks. T. S.
Eliot pleads for the extinction of personality and dramatization of poetry. The
image pattern, words and expressions, according to this theory are important.
The poet’s reading of life is rendered in objective terms-his set of values are
embodied and dramatized in the poem’s evolving meanings, imagery and symbolic