Traditional Theory of Poetry, Page 3
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
To make him clean, who could not be
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
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.
And God said, “Let light be.” And
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
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
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
And praise the easy vigor of a
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
The sound must seem an echo to
Soft is the strain when Zephyr
And the smooth stream in
smoother numbers flows,
But when loud surges lash the
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,
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