The Canons of Poetry


THE more I read the current discussion of poets and poetry, the more I am worried by the conviction that it is proceeding on false assumptions. The writers may have different tastes, belong to different groups, subscribe to different faiths, but they all seem to me to share a basic confusion.

This confusion is the result of a failure to think clearly about what is meant by the words ‘prose,’ ‘verse,’ and ‘ poetry ’ — a question which is sometimes debated but which never seems to me to get properly disentangled. Yet are not the obvious facts as follows?

What we mean by the words ‘ prose ’ and ‘verse’ are simply two different techniques of literary expression. Verse is written in lines with a certain number of metrical feet each; prose is written in paragraphs and has what we call rhythm. But what is ‘poetry,’ then? My contention is that ‘poetry’ once meant one thing but that it now means something different, and that one cannot come to anything but very misleading conclusions by taking all the verse writers out of their periods and throwing them together in one’s mind. One must consider both verse and prose in relation to the historical development of literature.

The important thing to recognize is that the technique of verse was once commonly used for many purposes for which we now ordinarily use prose.

Solon expounded his political ideas in verse; the Works and Days is a shepherd’s calendar in verse; the Theogony is versified mythology; and almost everything which in contemporary writing would be put into prose plays and novels was versified by the Greeks in epics or plays. And even after prose fiction had appeared the Latins continued to write epics, and to compose treatises on farming and astronomy in verse. The Middle Ages still wrote verse epics. The theatre of Shakespeare and Racine was still largely written in verse; the English Augustans, imitating the Romans, wrote moral and literary essays in verse.

But how much of this verse was ‘poetry’? From the point of view of those who wrote it and read it, it was all of it poetry, of course, and the people who wrote it were poets. The ‘poetic’ of Horace’s Ars Poetica applies to the whole range of ancient verse, and Horace enumerates in it the uses to which carmina have been put. The heroes of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets are Dry den and Pope.


These facts are sufficiently well known. Yet a change in the conception of poetry has taken place which affects in a peculiar way the critic’s view of the past and causes him to talk as if they were not true.

This change appears very clearly in the doubts of the nineteenth century as to whether Pope was a poet at all. It is true that the prominent position which Dr. Johnson gives Pope in The Lives of the Poets is due to the special taste of his time; but it is not true that only a critic of the latter part of the eighteenth century, a critic of an ’age of prose,’ would have considered Pope a poet. Any age before the age of Coleridge would have considered Pope a ‘poet.’

But the romantics were to redefine ‘poetry.’ With Coleridge it has come to mean something different. In the Biographia Literaria he denies that any excellent work in metre may be properly called a ’poem.’ ‘The final definition . . he says, ‘may be thus worded. A poem is that species of composition which is opposed to works of science by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species — (having this object in common with it) — it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.’ This would evidently exclude the Ars Poetica and the De Natura Rerum, whose immediate objects are as much truth as pleasure. What is really happening is that in the mind of Coleridge the meaning of ‘poetry’ is becoming more specialized. Why? Coleridge tells us in formulating an objection which may be made to the first part of his definition: ‘ But the communication of pleasure may be the immediate object of a work not metrically composed; and that object may have been in a high degree attained, as in novels and romances.’ Precisely; and the novels and romances were formerly written in verse, whereas they are now often written in prose. In Coleridge’s time, tales in verse are more and more giving place to prose novels.

Before very long, novels in verse such as Aurora Leigh and The Ring and the Book will seem more or less literary oddities. ‘Poetry,’ then, for Coleridge, has become something which, unless he amends his definition, may equally well be written in prose; as he says, the prophet Isaiah and Plato and Jeremy Taylor would be poetry. He seems to me here to become muddled; but his conclusion is that the ‘peculiar property of poetry’ is ‘the property of exciting a more continuous and equal attention than the language of prose aims at, whether colloquial or written.’

The truth is that Coleridge is having difficulties in attempting to derive his new conception of poetry from the literature of the past which has been based on the old conception. Poe, writing thirty years later, was able to go much further. Coleridge had said — and it was really what he was principally trying to say — that ‘a poem of any length neither can be, nor ought to be, all poetry.’ (Yet are not the Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s tragedies all poetry? Or rather, in the case of these masterpieces, is not the poem the whole work, sustained at a uniformly high level of expression and with the effects of the different parts dependent on each other?) Poe predicted that ‘no very long poem would ever be popular again,’and made ‘poetry’ mean something even more special by insisting that it should approach the indefiniteness of music. The reason why no very long poem would ever be popular again was simply that verse as a technique was passing out of fashion in every department of literature except that of lyric poetry. The long poems of the past — Shakespeare’s plays, the Divine Comedy, the Greek dramatists, and Homer — were going to continue to be popular; but writers of that stature in the immediate future were not going to write in verse.


Matthew Arnold was to keep on in Coleridge’s direction, though by a route somewhat different from Poe’s. He said, as we have heard so repeatedly, that poetry was at bottom a criticism of life; but, though one of the characteristics which true poetry might possess was ‘ moral profundity,’ another was ‘natural magic,’ and ‘eminent manifestations of this magical power of poetry’ were ‘very rare and very precious.’ ‘Poetry’ is steadily becoming rarer. Arnold loved quoting passages of natural magic and he suggested that we ought to carry around in our minds a number of such passages as touchstones to test any new verse we encountered. His method of presenting the poets makes poetry seem brief and quintessential. He was not happy till he had edited Byron and Wordsworth in such a way as to make it appear that their ‘ poetry ’ was a kind of elixir which had to be distilled from the mass of their work — rather difficult in Byron’s case: how can you press the essence out of Don Juan?

There was some point in what Arnold was trying to do for these writers; but the only reason he was able to do anything for them was that the technique of verse was becoming incapable of handling large subjects successfully. Arnold could have done nothing for Dante by anthologizing him — nor, with all Shakespeare’s carelessness, for Shakespeare. The new specialized idea of poetry appears very plainly and strangely when Arnold talks about Homer: the Iliad and the Odyssey, which were history, fiction, and scripture to the Greeks, tend to crystallize for Arnold into brief patches of moral profundity and natural magic.

And in the meantime the ideas of Poe, developed by the Symbolists in France, had resulted in the Art Poé-tique of Verlaine, so remarkably different from that of Horace: ‘Music first of all . . . no Color, only the nuance! . . . Shun Point, the murderer, cruel Wit, and Laughter the impure. . . . Take eloquence and wring its neck! . . Let your verse be the fortune teller’s riddle flung to the crisp morning wind that smells, as it blows, of mint and thyme — and all the rest is literature.’

Eliot and Valéry followed. Valéry, still in the tradition of Poe, regarded a poem as a highly specialized kind of machine for producing a special kind of ‘state.’ Eliot called poetry a ‘superior amusement,’ and he anthologized, both in his own poems and in his criticism, even more fastidiously than Arnold. He, too, has his set of chosen and quintessential passages; and he has a curious gift for imbuing them, both when he incorporates them in his own poems and when he quotes them in his essays, with a personal accent and significance. One remembers how a few years ago people used to read the Elizabethans under the influence of Eliot to fish up strange and fascinating lines which sounded like the epigraphs to Eliot’s poems: ‘There’s thousands in their graves that at last day Like mandrakes shall rise shrieking!’ or, ‘Thou look’st like Antichrist in that lewd hat.’ And as Eliot’s poems were often put together out of what seemed separate lines and short passages, so his imitators came to think in lines rather than stanzas. I have said that Matthew Arnold could have done nothing for Dante by anthologizing him; but Eliot, in his introduction to Dante, in which he cites so many favorite passages, does in effect compile a Dante anthology.

The result, it seems to me, is to produce a sort of optical illusion. The critic, when he reads the play or epic, may have grasped it and enjoyed it as a whole; yet when the reader reads what the critic has written, he gets the impression, looking back on the great poet whom the critic has written about, that the Divine Comedy, say, so wonderfully sustained and so beautifully integrated, is principally remarkable for Eliotesque fragments. Once we have read Matthew Arnold’s essay, we find that the áυηριθμου Υϵλασμα of Æschylus and the ‘daffodils that come before the swallow dares’ of Shakespeare stick out from their contexts forever after in an entirely unjustified manner. Arnold, unintentionally and unconsciously, has had the effect of making the poet’s ‘poetry’ seem to be concentrated in a line or a phrase.

Finally, Mr. A. E. Housman comes with his lecture on ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’ — which, with Eliot’s recent lectures on ‘The Use of Poetry,’ has been the immediate provocation for these observations — and declares that he cannot define poetry. He can only recognize it, he says, by its symptoms: ‘Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thought, because if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’s last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, “everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.” The seat of this sensation is the pit of the stomach.’

This is true; but there are other things which give us these sensations, too: scenes from prose plays (the curtain of The Playboy of the Western World made my hair stand on end when I first saw the Abbey Theatre do it and still affects me in the same way when I recall it), passages from novels (Dædalus’s broodings over his mother in the opening episode of Ulysses and the end of Mrs. Bloom’s soliloquy), even scenes from histories such as Mirabeau’s arrival in Aix at the end of Michelet’s Louis XVI, even passages in a philosophical dialogue like the end of Plato’s Symposium. Housman, though he praises some long English poems, has the effect, like these other writers I have mentioned, of making us feel that ‘poetry’ means primarily lyric verse, and that only at its most poignant or musical moments.


What I have said here, of course, is not to belittle the value of what these writers have written about poetry. They are all distinguished poets themselves; and their criticism is very important because it is an attempt to provide an explanation of what they are trying to do in their own poetry, of what they conceive the capabilities and limitations of verse in their own time to be.

But I feel that in the minds of all of them the confusion still persists between the new idea of poetry and the old: between Coleridge’s idea on the one hand and Horace’s on the other; and that as time goes on and the technique of prose tends to take over more and more of the material formerly handled by the technique of verse, and as the two techniques appear side by side or combined in a simple work, it has become impossible to conduct any comparative discussion of literature on a basis of this misleading division of it into the departments of ‘poetry’ and ‘prose.’

What such discussion often results in, especially if carried on by persons who write verse themselves, is the impression that contemporary verse writers of small stature (though of however authentic gifts) are really the inheritors of the genius, the carriers-on of the tradition, of Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton, the Romans and the Greeks. It is time, it seems to me, to discard, or to define more carefully, the word ‘ poetry ’ which has come to serve for so many ambiguities, and to recognize that the most intense, the most profound, the most comprehensive, and the most beautifully composed works of literary art (which for these reasons are also the most thrilling and give us most prickly sensations while shaving) have been written sometimes in prose and sometimes in verse, depending on the literary technique which happened to be dominant during the period.

It is only when we argue about these matters that we become entangled in absurdities. When we read, our instinct values truly. Matthew Arnold cites examples of that ‘natural magic’ which he regards as one of the properties of ‘poetry’ from Chateaubriand and Maurice de Guérin, who did not write verse but prose, as well as from Shakespeare and Keats; and he includes Molière among the ‘larger and more splendid luminaries in the poetical heaven,’ though Molière was equally successful with prose and verse and would certainly never have versified at all if the conventions of his age had not demanded it. If one happens, as I did, to read Flaubert at about the same time as Dante, one finds that paragraphs from Madame Bovary stick in the mind like episodes from the Divine Comedy. One gets the prose by heart unconsciously just as one does favorite passages of verse; one repeats them, admiring the form, the choice of words, seeing more and more significance in them. One realizes that, though Dante is greater than Flaubert, Flaubert is a writer of the same class. It is simply that by Flaubert’s time the Dante writes his vision as prose fiction instead of as an epic in verse (if the Divine Comedy is an epic: really it is something between a mythological epic and a modern autobiographical novel). Surely at any other period in history La Tentation de Saint-Antoine would have been written in verse instead of prose.

And if one reads Vergil after Flaubert, one realizes that Vergil to-day would have written the Georgics, at any rate, in prose. Yet the Georgics is a beautiful poem, not parts of it but the whole thing, because it is a beautiful work of art and because in Vergil’s day this kind of treatise-pamphlet was still being written in verse. Madame Bovary took six years to write, as the Georgies took seven. Is Flaubert any less intense and precise in his use of words and rhythms than Vergil? Is Vergil any less successful in conveying emotion through objective statement than Flaubert? If, as has so often been done, you compare Tennyson to Vergil, you will conclude that the Vergils are diminishing. If, on the other hand, you compare Flaubert to Vergil, you will see how much an ancient master of verse has in common, in mood as well as in aim, with a modern master of prose — or, rather, you will see how a great modern prose writer has grown out of the great classical poets. Put Vergil’s descriptions beside Flaubert’s: the angry bees of Vergil with the bees in Madame Bovary that hit against the window; Vergil’s old market gardener with Flaubert’s old farm servant at the fair; the melancholy of Vergil’s pastures laid waste by the cattle plague, ‘desertaque regna Pastorum, et longe saltus lateque vacantes’ and of Orpheus calling Eurydice with the melancholy of Charles Bovary looking out at the sordid streets of Rouen and sniffing for the good country odors ‘qui ne venaient pas jusqu’à lui.’


If we take literature as a whole for our field, we put an end to many futile controversies — the controversies, for example, as to whether or not Pope is a poet, whether or not Whitman is a poet. If you admit that Pope is a great writer, it is less interesting to compare him with Shakespeare — which will tell you something about the development of English verse but will not bring out Pope’s peculiar excellence — than to compare him with Thackeray, say, with whom he has his principal theme, the vanity of the worldly world, in common and who throws into relief the intenser feeling and the superior art of Pope. And so the attempt to judge Whitman by the standards of verse has hindered the appreciation of his deliberate and exquisite art.

One of the most significant events of modern literature was Ibsen’s abandonment, in writing his plays, of verse technique for prose. Thereafter in general the dramatists of the highest artistic order — the Tchekovs, Shaws, Synges — wrote prose. It was by them that the soul of the time was given its beautiful expression: there was nothing for Rostand’s alexandrines but fireworks and declamation.

Finally, Joyce, who had assimilated Shakespeare and Dante, Flaubert and Ibsen all, began merging the two techniques. There is in Ulysses a mastery of metrics as well as a mastery of prose; and it is hard to tell whether his Work in Progress is by our conventional terminology to be called prose or verse. A good deal of it is written in metre and might be printed as verse; but Joyce prints the whole thing, except a few interpolated songs, as prose. In any case, it seems to me that nothing could be demanded of ‘poetry’ by Coleridge with his ‘sense of novelty and freshness with old and familiar objects,’ by Poe with his indefiniteness of music, by Arnold with his natural magic, by Verlaine with his nuance, by Eliot with his unearthliness, or by Housman with his bristling of the beard while shaving, which Anna Livia Plurabelle does not supply to the fullest measure.

I believe that an excellent procedure for anyone preparing to write about modern ’poetry’ would be first to think about Joyce. Anyone who did would be obliged to begin by admitting that Joyce was the greatest living ‘poet,’ but then would be obliged to reëxamine his idea of ‘poetry’ and to run the whole question back to the history of literary techniques. He might then point out how Hemingway has brought a prose technique to a pitch where it is perhaps more appropriate to compare his short stories to the verse of Catullus or Chénier than to the prose of Maupassant; how Faulkner, who began by writing verse, has gone on in writing novels to confuse verse technique with prose, unintentionally and with bad effect, instead of mingling them deliberately as Joyce does; how the verse technique of Ezra Pound has been changing into a technique of prose — and various other significant phenomena.

If one confines oneself to works written in verse, one excludes so much of modern literature, and with it so much of life. The best contemporary verse is lyric, and, though the best contemporary lyric poets are perhaps as good as any who ever lived, they are not writers of the stature of Shakespeare and Dante. The specialization of the functions of verse has narrowed the horizon of the verse writer.


It seems obvious that the technique of verse has been falling into disuse during at least the last two centuries. But should one conclude that it is doomed to be limited to more and more specialized functions and finally to go out altogether, or that it is really the logical vehicle for the highest and most intense literary art and must recover the domains it has lost?

One would have to try to trace from the anthropological and from the sociological points of view the causes for the decline which has already taken place. Is it a more primitive technique than prose? Are its fixed rules like the syntax of ancient languages, which becomes stiffer and more complicated the further back one goes? Leaving aside the requirements of taste and the self-imposed difficulties of form which have always been involved in the production of great works of art in any period, does the flexibility, say, of modern English prose bear to the versification of Horace the same relation that English syntax bears to Horace’s syntax, or that Horace’s bears to that of the Eskimos?

One important factor in the history of verse has been certainly its interaction with music. Greek verse grew up in fusion with music: verse and music were learned together. It was not till after Alexander the Great that prosody was detached from harmony. But the exclusively literary theory of verse was what the Romans got and developed. This accounts for the fact, I believe, that there seems to be in Greek poetry so little exact visual observation if we compare it with Latin poetry. Greek poetry is mainly for the ear. Compare a landscape in one of the choruses of Sophocles or Aristophanes with a landscape in Vergil or Horace: the Greeks are singing about the landscape; the Romans are fixing it for the eye of the mind. Again, in the Elizabethan Age, the English were extremely musical : one can hardly imagine the lyrics of Campion being composed apart from musical settings; and Shakespeare is permeated with music. Shakespeare’s evocation of things seen is always vivid and haunting; but the objects are more or less liquefied by music, like things seen under water. English poetry continues to keep fairly close to music through Milton. What has really happened with Pope is that the musical background has ceased to figure and the ocular sense has grown sharp again. After this, the only music is in lyrics, — that is, songs, — and it becomes more and more of a trick to be able to write them so that they seem to be authentic — so that they sound like something sung. It was the aim of the latenineteenth-century Symbolists, who derived their theory from Poe, to bring verse closer to music again, in opposition to the school of the Parnassians, who cultivated a hard and precise objectivity. And the success of the lyrics of Edna St. Vincent Millay, in spite of what some feel to be shortcomings of her imagery, is certainly connected with her musical training. (It is not merely the pictures of things presented which have a plastic character in modern poetry: the phrases which fix the images take a plastic rather than musical value on the page, as in the poems of Allen Tate, for example.) And in Joyce’s case it is not merely that verse metrics have been mingled with prose in the marvelous Sirens episode of Ulysses; such effects could have been produced only by a writer with a fine tenor voice like Joyce.

A period in which music took its place as an important element in a general serious culture might perhaps be a period of the revival of verse. As it is, some of our best verse in America has been composed for our popular ballads. One is amazed, as one goes through the collections of American popular songs (of Abbe Niles and W. C. Handy, of Carl Sandburg, of the pupils of Professor Kittredge) which have only recently been getting published, to discover that the conquest of the continent has had as a by-product a body of folk verse not unworthy to stand with Percy’s Reliques. The tune of the popular song will no doubt be carrying the words that fit it into the anthologies of verse of the future when many of the literary pieces in the present ones, which try to recall a music gone with Shakespeare, will have come to sound like words and nothing more.

Another factor which has affected verse has been undoubtedly the invention of the printing press and the increased demand for reading matter which has been largely supplied by prose, because ordinary prose is easier to write than verse. Modern journalism brought forth new art forms; and you had not only great writers of fiction such as Flaubert and Joyce, who were also consummate artists in the sense that the great classical poets were, but also great novelists like Balzac, Dickens, Dreiser, who have none of the concentration or perfection of detail of the epic, but have to be read rapidly and in bulk. Their novels are the epics of societies, and, lacking either the concision of the folk song or the elegance and distinction of the court, they sprawl and swarm like the populations of the great modern cities they deal with. They talk the colloquial and practical language of the dominant middle class, no longer schooled by the Renaissance teaching of the old régime which it has overthrown. Even a man like Dostoevsky rises out of this weltering literature. You cannot say that his insight is less deep, that his vision is narrower or less noble, or that his mastery of his art is less perfect, than that of the great poets of the past. You can only say that what he does he does by a technique totally different.

Such societies as one must imagine for the future — economically and logically organized and with higher general standards of education — might give rise to a new concentration in literature which would not necessarily involve a return to verse. More probably the future will have worked out new rhythms, new techniques, of its own.