On Judging Poetry

Poetry, like beauty, love or faith, is one of the most difficult words to define. Great poets and critics have given many definations of poetry, but, excellent though some of them may be concerning certain aspects of it, none of them is all enbracing and satisfoctory enough to cover what poetry really is. A certain wit has once put poetry as the stuff that poets write, and a poet as one who writes poetry. It is perhaps the most embracing and satisfactory defintation, and at the same time the most unembracing and unsatisfactory!

In a way, it is quite impossible to define poetry in a few words within the normal limit of a defination, because poetry can mean so many things, or at least have so many aspects. However, we know what poetry is, as if by instinct, despite this difficulty of an inclusive defination. It is just like asking a defination of Man. To define Man precisely and concisely is not easy, (the defination of Man is a male human being too big to be called a boy, may not be fitting enough), yet we learn what a Man is. After all, to define something is merely to isolate it. Poetry is not to be ioslated; it is part and parcel of life.

Nevertheless, it is constructive to examine the various so-called "definations" of poetry so as to illustrate its many aspects and forms. Wordsorth claims that "poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeings":

      O welcome messenger!  O welcome friend!
      A captive greets thee, coming from a house
      Of bondage, from yong city's wall set free
                              (Wordsworth, The Prelude)

Shelley says that poetry "may be defined to be the expression of the imagination":

      If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear,
      If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee,
      A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
      The impulse of they strength, only less free
      Than thou, O uncontrollable!
                             (Shelley, Ode to the West Wind)

To Arnold, "poetry is the criticism of life":

     What is the course of life
     Of mortal men on the earth? --
     Most men eddy about
     Here and there -- eat and drink,
     Chatter and love and hate,
     Gather and squander, are raised
     Aloft, are hurl'd in the dust.
     Striving blindly, achieving
                            (Arnold, Rugby Chapel)

To Auden, it is "memorable speech." These line from Burns serve well for illustration:

     O my luve is like a red, red rose,
     That's newly sprung in June;
     O my luve is like the melodie,
     That's sweetly play'd in tune.

                            (Burns, A Red, Red Rose) 

These only serve to show that poetry can be in many different forms. When judging poetry, a critic or judge must bear in mind what poetry does mean to the poet as well as to him himself. In other words, he must know what he is judging, for unless he realizes this, he cannot even judge, least of all judge properly. A critic must understand the different theories of poetry and its different phrases in its histroy of literature, for every period has its own characteristic poetic spirit.

Poetry has evolved from the early traditional ballad through the Age of Humanism, the Age of the Metaphysics, the Neo-classical Period, the Age of Romanticism, the Age of the Victorians, to the present age. These different phrases have their characteristics which are different from the others. For example, the poets of the Neo-classical Period thought that the best poetry should follow the Greek and Roman styles. Their poetry is full of bombastic classical figures and extravagance of language:

     Return Alpheus, the dread voice is past,
     That shrunk thy streams, Return Sicilian Muses,
     And call the Vales, and bid them hither cast
     Their Bells, and Flowerets of a thousand hues.
     Ye valleys low where the mild whispers use,
     Of shades and wantom winds, and gushing brooks
     On whose fresh lap the swart Star sparely looks
     Throw hither all year quaint enamell'd eyes
     That on the green turf suck the honeyed showers,
     And purple all the ground with vernal flower.
                            (Milton, Lycidas)

The Romantic poets, on the other hand, rebel, breaking themselves away from the classical conventions and poetic diction. To them, imagination and inspiration are the supreme factors in poetry:

     Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
       To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
     Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well 
       As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.
     Adieu! Adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
       Past the near meadows, over the still streams,
         Up the hill side; and now 'tis buried deep
           In the next valley-glades:
         Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
           Fled is that music: -- Do I wake or sleep?
                            (Keats, Ode to a Nightinggale)

The critic needs to understand the poetic spirit of the age. It is unfair to use the poetic theory of one age when judging the poetry of another. That was why when Wordsworth's early poems were first published, the poet was severely criticized. In his poetry there was no Helicon's Spring or Aeolian lyre. His themes were too humble and his diction too simple to be "poetry"; for poetry, according to classical judgment, should be about glorious events written in elevated language. Compare, for instance, the simple language of Wordsworth with the elevated language of Gray:

        O there is blessing in this gentle breeze
        That blows from the green fields and from the clouds
        And from the sky: it beats against my cheeks,
        And seems half-conscious of the joy it gives.
                           (Wordsworth, The Prelude)

Awake, Aeolian lyre, awake, And give to rapture all thy trembling strings. From Helicon's harmonious springs A thousand rills their mazy progress take: The laughing flowers that around them blow Drink life and fragrance as they flow. Now the rich stream of Music winds along Deep, majestic, smooth, and strong, Through verdant vales and Ceres' golden reign; Now rolling down the steep amain, Headlong, impetuous, see it pour: The rocks and nodding groves rebellow to the roar. (Gray, The Progress of Poesy)

It is, therefore, not without reasons that Wordsworth's early poetry was regarded as a rabble of a drunken man. Poor critics -- they did not have another Wordsworth that came before 1770 to pave the way for the following Wordsworthan style. (That is one of the difficulties in judging contemporary poetry.) However, Wordworth did come and make his mark so influential and strong that by the end of the century, poets like Milton and Gray, who had been cerebrated in the earlier period, were in return subjected to attack. They too suffered injustice. It is not a question of judging whether Neo-classical or Romantic poetry is superior, for both have their strenght and weakness. The point, the essntial point to remember when judging poetry, is to judge it in the lights of the age.

The critic must be sympathetic with the poet. He must try to bring out the good qualities before finding faults with the weaker ones. He has to see the poem as the poet sees it, finding out what the poet has to say and what his intention is, for a critic has a double role, the objective as well as the subjective. He has to examine the techniques of the poet, giving an objective appreciation of whether the poet's approach serves to further his theme. To echo what Burton says in his book "The Criticism of Poetry", "we cannot judge any work of art until we understand what the artist is trying to do, and we must be constant in our endeavour to judge only within our terms of reference."

Different poets have different intentions regarding their poetry. The intentions, however, can be broadly divided into two extreme classes, namely the hedonist and the didactic. Those belonging to the first school of intention, believe that the main aim of poetry is to give pleasure, while those belonging to the latter school, believe that poetry must teach, though it may give pleasure while teaching. Between these two schools there are various shades of opinions.

Poetry belonging to the hedonist school is usually beautifully written, full of colourful imagery and verbal music, pertaining to the principle of art for art's sake. The poet escapes from the everyday world to muse himself in the dreamland of his own. Most of the children's poetry belongs to this school. It simply captivates the readers or listeners by its charming poetic spell:

     There is sweet music here that softer falls
     Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
     Or night-dews on still waters between walls
     Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
     Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
     Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes;
     Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.
     Here are cool mosses deep,
     And through the moss the ivies creep,
     And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
     And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.
                         (Tennyson, The Lotus-Eaters)

The above stanza of Tennyson's famous poem does not attempt to teach anything, yet it is one of the most valuable piece of art in the whole world of poetry. It enriches our lives greatly; it pleases. Tennyson is a master in poetic music. Another very famous poem of this school is Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Refering to it, Parker (a noted editor of poems) claims that "it is safe to say that few poems have ever more triumphantly vandicated the statement that the poet's first duty is to please." The followings are some of the celebrated passages:

     In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud, 
     It perches for vespers nine;
     Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
     Glimmered the white moonshine.
     The moving Moon went up the sky,
     And nowhere did abide:
     Softly she was going up,
     And a star or two beside.

Besides pleasing, it also teaches, though of course this is subordinate:

     He prayeth best, who loveth best
     All things both great and small;
     For the dear God who loveth us,
     He made and loveth all.

                         (Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner)

Poetry of the didactic school is more serious in nature; its themes are often philosophical or religious:

     The glories of our blood and state
       Are shadows, not substantial things,
     There is no armour against Fate;
       Death lays his icy hands on Kings:
           Sceptre and crown
           Must tumble down
     And in the dusk be equal made
     With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
                        (Shirley, Death the Leveller)

     Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
          Guiltie of dust and sinne.
     But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
          From my first entrance in,
     Drew Nearer to me, sweetly questioning,  
          If I lack'd any thing.
                        (Herbert, Love)

Regarding theme, it is the poet's attitude and approach to it, that matters. There are two main wqys of approach, the personal and the universal. Wordsworth and Herrich both choose the same theme in their "Daffodils" and "To Daffodils" respectively, but the former treats it personally, while the latter universally:

     I wandered lonely as a cloud
       That floats on high o'er vales and hills.
     When all at once I saw a croud,
       A host of golden daffodils.
     Besides the lake, beneath the trees, 
     Fluttering and dancing in the breeae.
                       (Wordsworth, Daffodils)

Fair daffodils, we weep to see You haste away so soone: As yet the early rising Sun Has not attain'd his Noone. Stay, stay, Until the hasting day Has run But to the Even-song; And, having pray'd together, we Will goe with you along. (Herrick, To Daffodils)

Hence, when judging poetry, the critic must understand the poet's theory of poetry, what the poet has to say and the objects of his poem, and whether his approach and techniques help him to achieve his objects. These are the external criteria when judging poetry. Understanding these, then the critic has to apply the internal criteria, that is the criteria found within the poem itself.

The internal criteria are rhythm, rhyme, music, insight, feeling,imagery and diction. As I have discussed the first five criteria in previous articles already, I shall not repeat discussing them here. But I shall, nevertheless, add some comments on rhyme, musical effect and feeling, before I proceed to discuss imagery and diction.

Like rhythm, good rhyme has functional beauty, that is it beautifully fulfils its function of contributing to a better realization of the poem. Pope's couplet illustrates this point:

     Know, Nature's children all divide her care;
     The fur that warms a monarch, warm'd a bear.

Pope uses rhyme advantageously to examplify his meaning. The general statement in the first line is concretely exemplified in the second. Pope's intention is to show that Nature cares for her children equally, be it a monarch or a bear. The contrast is all the more striking in his days, when the bear-pit showed the animal in dreadful degradation. Thus, his choice of "bear" to rhyme with "care" is justified. Incidentally, the couplet also serves to show that rhyme has to do with sound and not spelling. "White" and "might", "crawl" and "call" are good rhymes, while "cut" and "put", "bone" and "gone" are not.

Besides simple rhyme, there are internal rhyme and double (or feminine) rhyme. The former has a slight accelerating rhythm, whereas the latter has the opposite effect:

     The ice was here, the ice was there,   
     The ice was all around:
     It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
     Like noises in a swound!

                      (Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner)

Few and short were the prayers we said, And we spoke not a word of sorrow; But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead, And we bitterly thought of the morrow. (C.Wolfe, The Burial of Sir John Moore)

The critic must judge whether the rhyme serves any useful purpose, or is artificial, being used merely for similar ending-sound.

The use of repetition to achieve musical effect, sometimes produces intellectual effect too. Intellectual effect creates vivid imagery that recalls the focus-point of the poem:

     A weary time! A wearly time!
     How glazed each weary eye!
                     (Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner)

Like the dew on the mountain, Like the foam on the river, Like the bubble on the fountain, Thous art gone, and for ever! (Scott)

In judging poetry under the criterion of poetic feeling, the critic needs to examine whether the feeling is sincere; if not, then he must try to find out the poet's intention of building up artifical emotion.

The critic also needs to be careful not to be deceived by his own mood when judging poetic feeing, for his mood, if he is not careful can grossly influence his judgment. A critic in a happy and elevated mood would not find much agreement with these lines from Keats:

     Darking I listen; and for many a time
       I have been half in love with easeful Death,
     Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
       To take into the air my quiet breath;
     No more than ever seems it rich to die,
       To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
         While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
           In such an ecstasy!
       Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain
         To thy high requiem became a sod.
                     (Keats, Ode to a Nightingale)

These lines, nevertheless, would be very soothing and consoling to a critic when he is depressed and melancholic.

Imagery, the product of the poet's imagination, gives the listeners or readers vivid mental pictures. The poet does this by using three main techniues. He can give a vivid description:

     Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
       And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
     Save where the bettle wheels his droning flight,
       And drowsy tinkling lull the distant folds.
                    (Gray, Elogy Written in a Country Churchyard)

He can make use of figures of speech:

     There is a garden in her face,
       Where roses and lilies glow.
                   (Thomas Campion)                 

The moon, like a flower In heaven's high bower, With silent delight Sits and smiles on the night. (Blake, Night)

Finally, he can build up his imagery with picturesque epithets:

     All in a hot and copper sky,
     The bloody sun at noon.
                   (Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner)

Regarding diction, Coleridge provides an excellent point when he says that "poetry is the best words in their best order," contracting with prose, "words in their best order." Diction is the more important as poetry appeals to the emotion. The poet has to select the most fitting words in order to create the exact tone, because words have a very rich connotation of ideas. The following lines show how the proper choice of emotional words enrich the beauty of the poem:

     Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
     And threw warm glues on Madeline's fair breast.
                  (Keats, The Eve of St.Agnes) 

"Casement" is a medieval word for "window", "gules" a heraldic word for "red", "fair" and "breast" are more romantic than "uncoloured" and "chest". If we recite the lines as:

     Full on this window shone the wintry moon,
     And threw red marks on Madeline's uncolourred chest.

the factual meaning is the same, but much of the poetic beauty disapears. It is the emotionally coloured words that enhance the romantic sentiment of the couplet. A critic, therefore, must see whether the diction the poet uses is appropriate and contributory to the theme. However, as mentioned earlier, he must be careful of the poetic spirit of that age. For example, it would be unfair to use the Neo-classical standard of diction to blame Wordsworth as prosaic, or the Romantic standard to accuse Milton of being bombastic.

In conclusion, the critic must bear in mind the external criteria when working on the internal criteria, so that his judgment would be free from prejudice and mis-interpretation. Only then should he begin to make his subjective criticism of the impressions the poem made on him, by asking himself questions like how far has the poem moved him personally, which parts of the poem he finds beautiful or interesting, and whether there are areas of personal disagreements he has with the poet. These, then, are some of the criteria, internal and external, one can use when judging or appreciating poetry..

Wong Kiew Kt,
Penang 21-2-64.

This article was originally written as a literature assignmentm when I was in Upper Six Arts in Penang Free School. It is reproduced here with slight modification.


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