The History of Poetry
Poetry-making is much older than writing. Although its origins have been lost to history and can never be known for certain, the widely-accepted theory is that poetry arose in early agricultural societies, where it was spoken or chanted as a spell to promote good harvests. Certainly it was a part of religious rites and ceremonies in ancient Greece and Rome, and was the vehicle used for handing down the stories of the people's struggles and triumphs.
Poetry v Prose
It is extremely difficult to define poetry and describe the difference between it and prose, and experts the world over have been understandably reluctant to do so. On the subject of definitions, the French poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945) remarked that anybody with a watch could say what time it was, but who could define time itself?
One attempt at a definition of poetry is that it is written (or recited) in lines--that instead of running on as prose does, it breaks at certain points. There is a suggestion of this definition in the original Latin words for prose and verse: prosus meant 'going straight forth' and versus meant 'returning'. In verse there is a tendency to repetition (to 'return') and to variation. Of course, if it is the sort of verse that conforms to an elaborate traditional pattern, it can scarcely be confused with prose. Even then, though, there are no handy rules for telling whether it is good poetry or bad poetry, a point often emphasized by the regular emergence throughout history of poets who were at first scorned, and later celebrated or vice versa.
The earliest known Western poetry consists of two acknowledged Greek masterpieces--the Iliad and the Odyssey. Both of these works are attributed to the legendary Homer, who is supposed to have been a blind wandering minstrel living in Greece in a period put at various times between the eleventh and seventh centuries B.C. The Iliad and the Odyssey are epics--that is, they are long narrative poems about the deeds of heroes. The Iliad tells of the siege of Troy and the Odyssey of Odysseus's (known to the Romans as Ulysses) wanderings after the siege and his journey home.
Cast of Sophocles
The Greeks used poetry not only to celebrate their heroes but to instruct, to sing of love and to enrich their theatre through plays by such revered writers as Aeschylus (c. 525-456 B.C.), Sophocles (c. 497-405 B.C.) and Euripides (c. 485-406 B.C.).
From its beginning, Latin or Roman poetry was heavily influenced by the Greeks. In the middle of the third century B.C. the Latin poet Livius Andronicus made a translation of the Odyssey--the earliest Latin poetry of any significance surviving today. The first work of real independence however, was the Annals of Ennius (239-169 B.C.), an historical epic of which only fragments survive. Many Roman writers who came after him are still deeply admired. They include Lucretius who in the first century B.C. wrote On the Nature of Things, which has been called the West's greatest philosophical poem--and Virgil (c. 70-19 B.C.) who, among other works, wrote the celebrated national epic, the Aeneid.
Anonymous Portrait of Chaucer
The medieval period witnessed the emergence of a variety of poetry written in the vernacular. The epic masterpieces of the age included the Old English alliterative poem Beowulf, France's La Chanson de Roland and the Spanish Poema del Cid. There was also religious poetry, versified romance, and lyric poetry (literally poetry to be accompanied by a lyre, but also subjective poetry imbued with melody and feeling).
The great names among medieval poets included Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400), Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), and the notable Parisian thief and brawler, Francois Villon (c. 1431-63).
The most celebrated lyric form of the period was the sonnet, which the scholar and poet Petrarch (1304-74) had perfected in Italy. Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42) introduced the form to Renaissance England, where Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (1517-47) is said to have fixed the rhyme scheme for the sonnet's standard fourteen lines: abab, cdcd, efef, gg. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) used the form to write lasting poetry.
The Earl of Surrey is also said to have invented blank (unrhymed) verse. The brilliant young poet Christopher Marlowe (1564-93) used this form in his writing for the English theatre, but his early death allowed Shakespeare to fashion blank verse into a medium for his own much-celebrated plays.
Perhaps the greatest Renaissance figure in English poetry was John Milton (1608-74) who, when aged and blind, created his masterpiece, Paradise Lost (published 1667). He was already blind in 1652, when he was acting as Latin Secretary to Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth of England, and was assisted in carrying out his duties by another remarkable poet, Andrew Marvell (1621-78). Marvell belonged to a group of writers whose preoccupations won for them the title of the Metaphysical Poets.
Toward the English Romantics and Victorians
In 1711, Alexander Pope (1688-1744) published his Essay on Criticism in which he set out in verse his agreement with the theory that poetry involved imitation, that its subject should be conveyed through the poem's metre (rhythm) and sound.
Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an Echo to the sense...
Later, with the rise of the Romantic movement, the emphasis in poetry shifted to imagination and expression. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) spoke of the processes behind poetry as 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings'.
Another of the great Romantics was Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), a poet of wide range and a passionate critic of privilege. Some of the ideas circulating after the French Revolution are expressed in his Song to the Men of England.
Wherefore feed, and clothe, and save,
From the cradle to the grave,
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat -- nay, drink your blood...
The towering poetic figure for the Victorians was Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-92), whose poems were known by a great part of the populace. Works such as The Lotus Eaters were much admired.
It has been said that no more accomplished craftsman than Tennyson has ever written English verse. However, it is only recently that his reputation has begun to revive after the eclipse of Victorian taste in the early twentieth century.
Influences and Modern Poets
In the nineteenth century, influential experiments in metre were made by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) and the American Walt Whitman (1819-92). Hopkins invented a 'sprung rhythm' suggesting natural speech, and in the United States, Whitman produced a free-verse style which was widely emulated.
Poetry now gradually came under the same influences as those that affected painting and music, and which made twentieth-century styles so different from those of all preceding periods.
In France, the poets Paul Verlaine (1844-96), one of the first Symbolists, called for vagueness and music in poetry, and Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91) made an influential demand for 'derangement of all the senses' and for the poet to become a seer.
In the early twentieth century, poetry was affected by the Dada movement, with its attacks on all tradition, and then by the Surrealists.
The first Surrealist manifesto (1924) was drawn up by the French poet André Breton: it urged artists to adopt 'pure psychic automatism', and to explore the world of dreams and the subconscious, of madness, drugs and hallucination.
The Surrealists were immensely influential. So in a rather different way was the expatriate American poet, Ezra Pound (1885-1972), who had issued the manifesto of the Imagists (c. 1912-14), calling for direct and sparse language and precise images. Pound promoted the work of an array of splendid talents, among them the great Irish poet, W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) and Robert Frost (1874-1963). He also assisted in editing one of the great poems of the century, T. S. Eliot's (1888-1965) The Waste Land.
'In the arts an appetite for a new look is now a professional requirement', wrote the American critic Harold Rosenberg in the early 1960s; and the need to 'make it new', to avoid the cliché (in attitude or words), to find fresh ways of expressing contemporary life is still the concern of a great many poets.
Among the important figures in twentieth-century English-language poetry not already mentioned are the English-born W. H. Auden (1907-73) and Ted Hughes (1930-98); the Welsh Dylan Thomas (1914-53) and the Americans Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) and Allen Ginsberg (1926-97).
Should a Poet Write His Own Epitaph?
John Keats (1795-1821), like his contemporary Shelley, was a major figure among the English nineteenth-century romantic poets. Despite having created such great poems as Ode on a Grecian Urn and On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer, Keats, condemned to die young of tuberculosis, wrote a dispirited summary of his achievements for his epitaph: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." But critics and readers throughout history have not agreed with him and it seems likely that the name of John Keats will last as long as English poetry is read.
Biographies and Useful Information - Classical
- Homer's Iliad and Odyssey
Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are a major part of ancient history, especially that of Ancient Greece. This site, by means of a purely educational and learning mission, has put together a collaboration of materials and works by our team that we feel will
- Aeschylus (c. 525-456 BC)
Biography of Greek playwright Aeschylus, plus links to all of his works currently in print.
- Sophocles and His Tragedies
Biography of ancient Greek dramatist Sophocles and analysis of his poetic qualities.
- Who Was Euripides Writer of Greek Tragedy
Biography of ancient Greek dramatist Euripides and analysis of his poetic qualities.
- Livius Andronicus
A biography of Roman actor and dramatist Livius Andronicus.
- Quintus Ennius
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- Lucretius [The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
Extensive discussion of the life, doctrine, and context of this Roman Epicurean thinker.
Virgil was a Roman poet. Born Publius Vergilius Maro, at Andes (now Pietole), Italy, October 15, 70 B.C. Died Brundisium (now Brindisi), Italy, September 20, 19 B.C.Virgil was the great national poet of...
Biographies and Useful Information - Medieval
- Dante Alighieri - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Extensive discussion of the life, doctrine, and context of this great medieval poet.
- Geoffrey Chaucer - Biography and Works
Geoffrey Chaucer. Biography of Geoffrey Chaucer and a searchable collection of works.
- Francis of Assisi : Poems and Biography
Poetry of the sacred experience by poets and saints from around the world. Discover Sufi poetry, Hindu poetry, Buddhist poetry, Christian mystical poetry, and poetry from other sacred and secular traditions.
- Franois Villon Biography | Encyclopedia of World Biography Biography
Franois Villon biography, including 5 pages of information on the life of Franois Villon.
- Francesco Petrarch - Father of Humanism
Francesco Petrarch, who he was, what he did, his writings, letters and poems.
Biographies and Useful Information - Renaissance
- Sixteenth Century Renaissance English Literature (1485-1603)
A comprehensive guide to British literature of the Renaissance with over 100 original pages, biographies, and works never before published on the web. Also includes several hundred links to additional resources.
- A Brief Guide to Metaphysical Poets - Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More
Biographies and Useful Information - Romantics
- British Romantic Era Poets
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- The Birth of the English Romantic Movement
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- Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Brief Biography
Biographies and Useful Information - Modern
- The biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins - life story
The biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins - life story .. poetry
- A Brief Guide to the Symbolists - Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More
- 19th Century American Poets and Poems
A list of Famous 19th Century American Poets. The authors listed on this page include some of the greatest poets of 19th Century.
- William Butler Yeats - LoveToKnow 1911
- DH Lawrence
The world of DH Lawrence website and details of the International DH Lawrence Conference 2007
- American Poets of the 20th Century: Study Guide and Homework Help - CliffsNotes
Get free homework help on American Poets of the 20th Century: poem summary and analysis, quotes, essays, and character analysis -- courtesy of CliffsNotes.