Poetry: Its Nature and Function

Literature: Its Universality
Literature is a picture, more or less true, more or less inspiring, of actual life, Every country has its own literature which mirrors its life. But every literature is also an expression of emotions, of ideas and ideals, which have a permanent value and which are of interest for men in every age and country. This accounts for the permanence and universality of great works of literature left behind by peoples in remote ages and countries. It is for this reason that Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aenied written in ancient Greece and Rome are still read and enjoyed. Truly speaking, literature is not of one age but of all ages, not of one country but of all countries.

Three Major Forms of Literature
Poetry, Prose and Drama are the three major forms of literature. As men and women gradually learned, through the passing ages, to write down their thoughts, feelings, desires and opinions, they used many different ways or forms of expressing themselves. It is not very easy to distinguish these “forms”, if we try to talk of Literature in exact historical order; but we can safely say that it seems as if men used verse before prose – that is, for their literary works as apart from their everyday speech when, for instance, they discussed their affairs, or quarrelled, or asked other people to supply their needs. In other words, when man was emotionally moved he used verse: when he wanted to convey some point of view, he used prose. Drama came at a later stage when action was added to that which so far had been written down to be read. Dramas can be written both in verse and prose. For example, Shakespeare uses both verse and prose for his plays, and the plays of both George Bernard Shaw and John Galsworthy are in prose. But critics like T.S. Eliot are of the view that Drama is a form of poetry. Drama is dramatic-poetry, just as there is lyric-poetry or epic-poetry. He regards prose drama as something unnatural and artificial.
Poetry: Some Definitions
Poetry then is one of the three major branches of literature. All through the ages efforts have been made to define poetry, and determine its nature and function: For example, Dr. Johnson, the great scholar and literary critic of the 18th century, defined poetry as, “metrical composition”, and added that it is “the art of uniting pleasure with truth by calling imagination to the help of reason.” Poetry, according to Macaulay is, “the art of doing by means of words what the painter does by means of colours.” Poetry, declares Carlyle, is “Musical Thought”. Poetry, says Shelley, may be defined as the expression of the imagination; it is, says Hazlitt, the language of the imagination and the passions. In Coleridge’s view poetry is the antithesis of science, having for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; in Wordsworth’s phrase, it is “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge,” and “the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science.” According to Matthew Arnold, it is “simply the most delightful and perfect form of utterance that human words can reach”; it is, “a criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty.” According to Keble it is “a vent for overcharged feeling or a full imagination.” Ruskin defines it as “the suggestion, by the imagination, of noble grounds for the noble emotions”. Prof. Courthope defines it as “the art of producing pleasure by the just expression of imaginative thought and feeling in metrical language.” Mr. Watts-Dunton, says it is, “the concrete and artistic expression of the human mind in emotional and rhythmical language.”
Poetry: Its Emotional and Imaginative Content
But all such definitions fail to do justice to the nature of poetry, in its very nature poetry cannot be confined within the narrow limits of a definition. Therefore, it would be more profitable to turn our attention to the commoner characteristics of poetry, and thus determine the best way of studying it. The above definitions, however, make it quite clear that the true content of poetry is imaginative and emotional. Poetry is imaginative and emotional interpretation of life. Poetry deals with facts, experience and problems of life, but first, it relates them to our emotions, and secondly, it transfigures and transforms them by the exercise of imagination. It treats reality imaginatively, colours it with emotion, but it does not falsify or distort it. Imagination and emotion predominate in poetry, they are the essential qualities of poetry and without them much that passes as poetry, is in reality unworthy of the name of poetry.
Metre: Essential to Poetry
But then imagination and emotion may characterise prose also, as they do in the case of what is called, poetic-prose. Should such prose be called poetry? As Hudson puts it, “there is much ‘poetry’ which is purely ‘prosaic’; there is much ‘prose’ which is markedly ‘poetical’; but a dividing line between prose and poetry still exists. What does this imply? It implies that poetry, specifically so termed, is a particular kind of art; that it arises only when the poetic qualities of imagination and feeling are embodies in a certain form of expression. That form is, of course, regularly rhythmical language, or metre. Without this, we may have the spirit of poetry without its externals. With this, we may have the externals of poetry without its spirit. In its fullest and completest sense, poetry presupposes the union of the two.”
In other words, poetry has both from and content. The true content of poetry must be imaginative and emotional. And this imaginative and emotional interpretation of life must be clothed in a systematically rhythmical language, which is called metre. The use of metre is not something external, something ‘super-added’, but essential. The primary purpose of all art is to provide aesthetic pleasure; and each art has its own particular aesthetic pleasure. The primary function of poetry also is to give aesthetic pleasure, and the aesthetic pleasure peculiar to poetry is not possible without the use or metre or regularly rhythmical language. It is metre which enables poetry to perform the function proper to it, its use is essential if poetry is to provide its own particular pleasure, a part of which lies in the regulated music of its language. Treated in prose the same subject may be richly poetical, but it becomes actual poetry only when metre is used. Without imagination and emotion any subject treated in metre will remain mere verse (tukbundi). Without metre even the most emotional and imaginative subject would remain prose.
Matthew Arnold, “despite his pre-occupation with the idea of poetry as a “criticism of life,” lays stress upon “the essential difference between imaginative production in verse, and imaginative production in prose.” The “rhythm and measure” of poetry, he maintains, “elevated to a regularity, certainty, and force, very different from that of the rhythm and measure which can pervade prose, are a part of its perfection.” Much that passes as poetry may be prosaic and much that is regarded as prose may be in reality richly poetic. Still a dividing line between prose and poetry has got to be drawn, and most scholars are agreed that metre constitutes this dividing line. “Metre then must be taken as the general and constant characteristic of poetry, and the chief point of distinction between prose and poetry, as far as form is concerned.”
Conceived as distinct kind of literary art poetry has imaginative and emotional substance, and a metrical form. These are the essential characteristics of poetry, and we can have the distinctive satisfaction which should arise from reading poetry only when these qualities are present. “How much the power of poetry depends upon the nice inflections of rhythm alone, may be proved,” as James Montgomery pointed out, “by taking the finest passages of Milton and Shakespeare, and merely putting them into prose, with the least possible variation of the words themselves. The attempt would be like gathering up dewdrops, which appear jewels and pearls on the grass, but run into water in the hand; the essence and the elements remain, but the grace, the sparkle, and the form are gone.”
The Diction of Poetry
Metre is an essential part of the perfection poetry, and the use of metre modifies the language of poetry. ‘Metre’ as Coleridge puts it, “medicates the whole atmosphere”, and makes the diction of poetry different from the language of prose. Diction means both the choice and the arrangement of words, both vocabulary and syntax. Though views about a proper diction for poetry may differ, there can be no denying the fact that the words which a poet uses are different from those used by a writer of prose, and he also arranges them in a different way. Thus, for example, a poet must avoid the use of words with harsh, unpleasant sound, and select words which are sweet and pleasant. Not only must the words which he choses convey his meaning exactly and precisely, they must also be musical. Further, the order in which the words are arranged is different from that of prose. The syntax of a poet is conditioned not by the ordinary rules of grammar but by the requirements of metre. Often inverted constructions become unavoidable. In “He lived the woods among”, ‘among’ comes after ‘woods’ and not before, as it should be used according to the rules of grammar. Considerations of rhyme and metre have necessitated this inverted construction. That is what Coleridge meant when he said that poetry is, “right words in the right place.” In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth expressed the view that, “there is no essential difference between the language of prose and the language of poetry”, but his own practice shows that there is such a difference and this difference is essential, if poetry is to provide its own distinctive kind of pleasure, i.e. pleasure arising from the use of ordered, musical language.
Figures of Speech: Their Significance
Not only that, the diction of poetry must also be figurative. Figures of speech are not merely decorative, they are essential to the emotional and imaginative appeal of poetry. In moments of intense emotional excitement, man has always tended to express himself in a figurative language. He has always coloured the external world with his own emotion, or has compared himself and his life with the objects and phenomena of nature. Simile, metaphor, personification, pathetic fallacy, hyperbole, etc., are the more common of the figures which have been used by men since the earliest times. These figures are used by prose-writers as well, but a poet’s use of them is more frequent and more emotional and more imaginative. Good and effective prose – prose of the highest order – may be possible without them, but without them poetry loses much of its charm and appeal. There may be poets who use a bare, bold, unadorned diction, but to that extent their poetry is felt to be less satisfying. This is so because poetry appeals to the emotions, and a figurative language is conducive to such emotional appeal.
Kinds of Poetry
Broadly speaking poetry may be divided into two kinds. First, there is personal or subjective poetry, the poetry of self-expression. In this kind of poetry the poet goes down into himself and finds his inspiration and his subjects in his own experiences, thoughts and feelings. To this personal or subjective poetry, the world lyrical is generally applied. Personal or subjective or lyrical poetry is further sub-divided into (a) the Elegy, (b) the Ode, and (c) the Sonnet.
Secondly, there is impersonal or objective poetry in which the poet goes out of himself and finds his inspiration and his subjects in the actions and passions of the world without. In this kind of poetry, the poet deals with the outside world with little reference to his own personal thoughts and emotions. This impersonal or objective poetry may be either narrative or dramatic. Narrative poetry is further sub-divided into (a) the ballad, or the short-story in verse, (b) the Epic, or a long story in verse, (c) the Metrical Romance, (d) the Idyll or the idealised treatment in verse of simple homely people and their lives. By dramatic we mean not the actual drama, meant to be acted on the stage, but poetry which, “though not intended for the stage, is essentially dramatic in principle.” The Dramatic Monologue is the most important kind of dramatic poetry, and in England Robert Browning is its most important practitioner.
Such are the chief kinds of poetry. But it should be remembered that this division is merely for the convenience of study, for in practice there is a constant mingling and over-lapping of the various kinds. Even in the delineation of the outside events and situations, the poet may bring in his own personal experience and colour what is external with his own emotions. Thus Wordsworth called the first collection of his poetry Lyrical Ballads, for the poems in the collection have the qualities both of a lyric and a ballad. The poet deals with external reality, but the external is suffused, coloured and transformed by his own feelings and emotions. Hence they are aptly called Lyrical Ballads. Such fusion of genres (types) is common and frequent.
In the subsequent chapters we shall study in some detail, the various forms of poetry, and Prosody or rules of versification. Such a study is necessary for any proper understanding and appreciation of poetry.

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