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The Traditional Theory of Poetry, Page 3 

Robert Harris
Version Date: March 25, 2013



7. Poetry concentrates and intensifies its message.
The intensification is designed so that the experience--the impact on the reader--will be fuller, brighter, more powerful, more vivid. Thus we find economy of language, one word carrying several meanings, as with a pun.
One measure of a good poem is its depth of meaning, its richness of overlaid meanings. Does the poet say several things at once? Metaphors (with tenor and vehicle), repercussions of significance, and the use of pun are some ways to do this. For example, look at George Herbert's line from "Life":

I made a posie, while the day ran by:

Posie here means three things—it is a triple pun. A posie is a floral bouquet, a poem, and a motto. There is discussion in the poem of a floral bouquet; the poem forms a poem; and there is a motto expressed in the second line of the poem. See also Herbert's "Redemption" and "The Sonne" for additional use of the pun.

The great poets strive for compression, for concision of expression. (A metaphor has been described as a highly imaginative analogy compressed into an identity.) This often contributes to sublimity. Consider these lines from George Herbert's "Marie Magdalene":

She being stained herself, why did she strive
To make him clean, who could not be defiled?

The double irony whips our brains around and into a new realization of the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus.

And compare these two versions of the creation of light from the book of Genesis:

First Version
And then the mighty and creating God in his great power thundered forth the awesome command that all the rays and particles that should make up light and illumination should be immediately created, and such light was in fact brought into full existence just as soon as God spoke for it to be so.

Second Version
And God said, “Let light be.” And light was.

The dramatic impact of the second version helps us understand the concept of the sublime, the powerful, emotional response created by the sudden apprehension of greatness in a short space (See Loginus, On the Sublime). “Let light be, and light was” is very powerful and moving.


8. Poetry conveys meaning beyond the particular.
Since it recreates an experience or feeling the reader can also have, and since it relies on recognizable association, and since it communicates, it must deal with general truth: "The poet does not number the streaks of the tulip" (Samuel Johnson, Rasselas). Though particulars are used, they speak of something beyond themselves. This is true even for poets in the romantic mold, who, though self-styled individualists, still partake of human experience and emotion and thus speak to us. If all they had to offer was solipsistic autobiography with which no one could imaginatively share or sympathize, it’s doubtful they would have the avid readers they do.

The quality of the idea expressed is related to its greatness. For true greatness the idea must partake of truth—it must resonate with us in our common humanity. That makes it worth sharing beyond one’s personal notebook. The thought must be of human universal significance, noble thought of lasting and significant value.
For example, which epic poem opening attracts your noble feelings more:

A. I like paper towels; I feel happy at the pleasant sound when I tear them from the roll.

B. Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste brought death into the world and all our woe… (John Milton, Paradise Lost).


9. Poetry is musical.
A poet pays careful attention to the sound of words, in themselves and in the context of the poem. Most poetry is intended to be read aloud, so that the sound of the language, the flavor of the spoken words, is crucially important. Music is given to poetry through rhythm, meter, syntactical crafting (like inversion), diction, alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, and so on. See the Handbook of Rhetorical Devices for more information.

Among the constituents of the musicality of poetry are these:

Aural quality and verbal essence.
Readability aloud; harmony of mood and words; richness; the flavor of the poem in your mouth. This quality is more difficult to describe than it is to experience. Once you “get it,” you’ll enjoy poetry at a deeper level for the rest of your life. The fact is, words have a taste to them or a feel to them as you speak.

Note how Alexander Pope, working within the confines of iambic pentameter couplets, skillfully matches the lines to the subject:

Leave such to tune their own dull rhymes, and know
  What's roundly smooth or languishingly slow;
  And praise the easy vigor of a line,
  Where Denham's strength, and Waller's sweetness join.
  True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
  As those move easiest who have learned to dance
  'Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
  The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
  Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
  And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows,
  But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
  The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar,
  When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
  The line too labors, and the words move slow;
  Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
  Flies o'er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.

[358-373; See Essay on Criticism, 337-373.] .





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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com