top of page

On a Proposed Definition of Poetry 




The origin of poetry seems to have been almost coeval with the birth of man. It is not, like other arts, the offspring of time and refined manners: it has equally been the production of distant ages and uncultivated people, as of the later periods of civilized life. But though poetry has proved the exercise of genius and the delight of taste, in all stages of society and the rudest nations of the world, it does not appear that the essentials of poetry, and the characteristical distinctions of poetry from pose, have been yet ascertained by an criterions universally admitted to be just. Though philological writers have at all times employed themselves so frequently and fully upon the business of composition at large, much difference of opinion still remains upon the point in question. I shall submit to the consideration of this society some concise remarks; which might be easily expanded and enlarged upon, with no little usefulness and entertainment, by a reader or taste, who should choose to take the talk upon him. I can hardly doubt, that the observations which I am going to lay down, however imperfectly illustrated, comprehend a satisfactory solution of the question.

Three things, and three only, are essential to the constitution of poetry, and united to distinguish it from prose:

I. A certain conformation of the language: in which two particulars are comprized.

1st. A metrical disposition of the words, which is called verse.
2d. A certain grandeur and elevation of expression.

In confirmation of this first position, I might venture to allege even the exordium of Paradise Lost ("of man's first," &c. to "sing heavenly mus"), for although delivered in a style of the most absolute simplicity, it is clearly distinguishable from prose, for the two reasons here assigned: 1. A transposition of the words from their proper grammatical arrangement, and a regularity of feet: 2. By a majesty of phrase, which would appear ridiculous and bombastical in prose... whose mortal taste...sing heavenly muse.

II. The second essential of a poet, I shall briefly characterize by the word genius: in which I include that happy fertility of invention, which enables the mind to devise a suitable subject for its exertions, and to expatiate, to a greater or less extent, through universal nature, the discovery of objects to embellish it.

This faculty of creation was esteemed by the Greeks such a capital ingredient in the formation of a poet, as to give rise to his denomination in their language. There needs no elaborate proof of this position; because I suppose, that every judgment will unite in acknowledging a power of invention in some degree to be an absolute requisite in poetry.

III. The third essential is, an enthusiastick turn of mind: which includes all that is understood by the terms, imagination, sensibility, and taste: an in proportion to the display of this third property will be the excellence of poetry.

My meaning in these three divisions will be more distinctly apprehended, and the subject itself receive considerable illustration, if we consider whether the union of all these qualities be necessary to poetry and if not, which of them may be spared.

1st. An absence of the two parts of the first essential property cannot be allowed. Without an ordonnance of measure and a dignity of expression, poetry cannot possibly exist. By the former of these particulars, the poet of all ages and nations has been distinguished: this point rests, therefore, upon the unanimous sentiments of mankind. And the second will discover real poetry, even when divested of its metrical habiliments. (See this topic illustrated by Horace, {at. 1, 4, 45, 63,} who there confirms all that is advanced upon this head of the subject.) Thus, when we read in the scriptures concerning the Supreme Being...

He made the moons for certain seasons;
And the sun knoweth his going down.

Ps. cix

The verse indeed is lost, but we perceive the composition to be poetical, both by a correspondent measurement of the sentences (a principle artifice in Hebrew poetry), and by a noble personification, inconsistent with the sobriety of real prose. So far, then, we may satisfy ourselves upon this point.

And yet it may be useful to remark, that the properties here specified, do not solely constitute poetry, though they are essential to it. Fenelon's Telemachus is a fine specimen of elevated composition, but is not a true poem; and Sir Richard Blackmore's Epicks (if I may be allowed to take refuge in this old example, to avoid all possibility of affront to the judgment of others, by instancing in authors of greater reputation), though written in measure and in rhyme too, are still prose.

2d. The second necessary ingredient of poetry, (though poetry, as distinguishable from versification, cannot exist without it) is not an exclusive property: for the principle distinction of a very common species of composition is invention to as great an extent as is found in any poem whatsoever. Such performances as Sir Thomas More's Utopia, and the whole class of novels, are neither called, nor esteemed, poems; though something of a poetical character evidently discriminates them from simple didactick prose. Where then shall we look in this instance for a decisive distinction between poetry and prose? Without doubt in a regular recurrence of appropriated numbers: in appropriate numbers, I saw or we shall not define sufficiently a modulated prose from poetry. Deprived of this characteristick, I do not see why Homer's Odyssey would have a better title to the honours of poetry, than the Telemachus or the Utopia, whatever the superiority of that performance may be in other respects. Concerning the third essential of poetry, an enthusiastick turn of mind, in proportion as prosaick compositions are tinctured with it, they lose their specifick character, and become, as one of our poets expresses himself,

Prose on stilts, or poetry gone lame.

Compositions of this peculiar craft, like a flip of land which borders upon two countries and belongs to neither, may occasion, as well as the comparison, some degree of controversy; but as they transgress the sobriety and uniformity of exact writing, are culpable in themselves; and, instead of being urged in opposition to the preceding observations, should be mutually given up as illegitimate, both by the patrons of poetry and prose. The sense of an incongruity of this kind induced a celebrated prelate to give his translation of a prophet, highly ennobled by his warmth of imagination and sublimity of genius, some appearance of poetry, by a regular distribution of the sentences in conformity to the original. He saw the beauty of Isaiah tarnished, and his dignity degraded, by the garb of vulgar prose: he was willing to preserve, if possible, some faint traces of eastern poesy, as far as the genius of a different language would admit, that his incomparable author might not lose, even in a version,

All his original brightness, nor appear
Less than archangel ruin'd.

What gives me the greater confidence in the foregoing remarks is, that they are merely an extension of the hints contained in a few words of Horace; who is not more worthy of admiration for the elegance of his poetry, than the incontrovertible justice of his criticisms. "First of all (says this arbiter of taste and learning - fat. 1, 4, 39, 45) I must beg leave to exempt myself from the number of those whom I distinguish by the name of poets: for it is not sufficient to give a line its proper number of feet to entitle to this distinction: nor can you with reason denominate him a poet, whose writings, like mine, partake so much of the simplicity and familiarity of common conversation. No: he only deserves this honourable appellation, who is possessed of genius, a more divine frame soul, and a magnificent and harmonious elocution."

The ancient comedy, because it wanted these requisites, and was only distinguished from prose by its measures, he denies to be a poem. The Roman comedy (if he meant that) might have been proscribed from the poetick province for an additional reason: because it was not solicitous to preserve any appearance of versification, except in the two concluding syllables of the line. The three criterions of poetry, laid down above, might be employed as a good standard, whereby to adjust in general the respective excellencies of all poets whatever, and afford full scope for some very curious and entertaining disquisitions, if any one of leisure and taste would take upon him the prosecution of the subject.

I will just subjoin one example of an application of these rules, in conclusion.

Homer in the article of invention, which is the first merit of poetry, has a great superiority over Milton*. Except therefore it could be shown, that these later poets compensate this inferiority by more abundant excellence in the other two constituents of poetry; the supremacy of Homer in one case, and the subordinate claims of Milton in the other, over the rest of the epick race, will be indisputably established. But the rules above will be as serviceable in estimating and comparing different departments of poetry, as in rating the worth of those in the same department.

*And Milton, in the same respect, a superiority over Virgil.

bottom of page