Unit 2: Continuity and Change in Poetic Form

2a. Differentiate between Poe's and Emerson's concepts of beauty and their relationships to poetry and its forms.
  1. Differentiate between Poe's and Emerson's concepts of beauty.
  2. How does Poe define poetry and the formal structures of it?
  3. How does Emerson define poetry and express form?

Poe talks about beauty as the "sole legitimate province of the poem" and suggests that the contemplation of beauty is the "pleasurable elevation of the soul". He favors a careful structuring of poetry as a means of affecting the reader, and even equates it to the computation involved in solving a complex mathematical equation. Emerson seems much more interested in a type of free verse that comes from a transcendental space of inspiration, divine at times, and favors a frenzied expression of Truth and Intellect over careful attention to formal arrangement. For further information on Poe, Emerson, and their ideas about poetry and form, consult this essay on Poe's "Philosophy of Poetic Form" and this essay on Emerson's "The Poet".


2b. Explain Poe's and Emerson's different understandings of the origin and correct composition of poetry.
  1. Explain Poe's and Emerson's different understandings of the origin of poetry.
  2. What is the correct composition of poetry according to Poe?
  3. What is the correct composition of poetry according to Emerson?

Emerson sees poetry as coming from a frenetic, uncontrollable intuition related to the revelation of universal truths felt by all but expressed only by the poet. Poe sees beauty as the special interest of poetry and thinks specifically about the effects on readers when he composes. Emerson privileges free verse in terms of form as he's more interested in the frenzied production and universality that he delivers. Poe's composition process is much more calculated than Emerson's. He approaches poetic structure as he might tackle a math problem and suggests that form and effect are more important than the mode of inspiration or production. Revisit ideas about poetry and form with this essay on Poe's "Philosophy of Poetic Form" and this essay on Emerson's "The Poet".


2c. Summarize Poe's objections to didactic poetry by contextualizing him and his work in the time period.
  1. Summarize Poe's objections to didactic poetry.
  2. How do Poe's objections to didactic poetry manifest in his works?
  3. How do Poe's objections to didactic poetry differ from other works/authors of the time period?

Poe is not only critical of the kind of intuition-inspired poetry of Emerson. He also condemns overly political or didactic poetry, as he thinks that these types of themes are better handled in prose. Since poetry, for him, is about the contemplation of beauty and the effect that may have on a reader, didactic themes were not something he focused on in his works. He is critical of the works of poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier who write quite directly about slavery and condemn its practices. Poe thinks that poetry should have no ulterior motive and writes accordingly. He writes about the melancholy of loss in "The Raven" as a means of getting at a contemplation of pure beauty while Longfellow and Whittier act as reform poets, fighting for abolition and a humanizing of those who are enslaved. "The Raven" also includes several literary elements like assonance, alliteration, simile, metaphor, personification, and onomatopoeia. Think about these to reflect on Poe's poetic craft. For more information on Poe's views, see this essay expressing his thoughts about Longfellow's works.


2d. List some of the most popular political poets of this historical moment and identify their major works.
  1. List some of the most popular political poets of this historical moment and think about why they are deemed "popular".
  2. Identify the major works of the most popular political poets of the time.
  3. Why is the political poetry of this time important?

Some of the most popular political poets of the time were John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson were also political poets in perhaps more subtle ways. All of these authors can be classified as "popular" because of their interests in engaging with social and political themes or issues of the day. Whittier and Longfellow were known for their anti-slavery poetry, and Whitman related his ideas about the self and its grandeur to the new American democracy. Dickinson engaged with the complicated expressions and repressions of women at the time in language that defies the patriarchal system under which it was composed. Whittier is known for "The Christian Slave" whereas Longfellow wrote "The Witnesses" and "The Quadroon Girl", among other works. Whitman's most famous work is Leaves of Grass and much of Dickinson's work is untitled poetry, named only by the words of the first line. If it is true what Emerson says about the poet standing in for the rest of the populace, political poetry allows for the expression of ideas about current events and issues important at the time. As contemporary readers, we can look back to see what issues authors grappled with during this time. Review subunit 2.2 on the question of poetry's social role for more information on this topic.


2e. Describe and analyze Whitman's development of free verse and its relationship to his ideas about American democracy, nature, love, friendships, and the self.
  1. Describe Whitman's development of free verse.
  2. How does Whitman's development of free verse relate to his ideas about American democratic ideals and the formation of a new American voice?
  3. How does Whitman's development of free verse relate to his ideas about nature, love, friendships, and the self?

Free verse is a poetic form that rejects regular meter and rhyme scheme. Sometimes you might find internal rhyme or the repetition of images as a means of rhyme in this type of work. Whitman further develops free verse as an American form that allowed for an openness and nuance of representation. He uses the form to invite all to engage with his work and even speaks in vernacular to describe and showcase those who wouldn't normally find themselves represented in poetry. He expands and revises this form to accommodate his ideas about nature, love, friendships, and the self. Revisit this essay on free verse and this piece on Whitman.


2f. Consider Dickinson's poetic form and content in the context of the traditional understanding of gender in the nineteenth century.
  1. Consider Dickinson's poetic form and content in the context of traditional notions of gender in the nineteenth century.
  2. What rights did women have during the nineteenth century?
  3. How does Dickinson's poetry both adhere to and challenge the ways that women were "supposed to behave" during this period?

Women's lives were limited during the nineteenth century, since they were not allowed to vote and often seen as subservient to men and their desires. They had less power in society generally and fewer good options for employment. Of course, those of the elite, upper, or educated classes may have had more freedoms, women were generally limited in their behaviors, although many found ways to circumvent the polite rules of society to express themselves and fight for more rights around gender. Dickinson developed a semantic style that directly challenged the patriarchal structure of language, communicating through "the unsaid" or silence. See Eve Grubin's essay on Dickinson's strategic reticence for more on Dickinson's intervention as a woman writing poetry during this time.


Unit 2 Vocabulary

This vocabulary list includes terms that might help you with the review items above and some terms you should be familiar with to be successful in completing the final exam for the course.

Try to think of the reason why each term is included.

  • Beauty
  • The Poet
  • Poet Laureate of Reform
  • Poetry's Social Role
  • Apostrophe
  • Free Verse
  • Epic Poem
  • Lyric Poem
  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Assonance
  • Alliteration
  • Personification
  • Onomatopoeia
  • American Vernacular
  • Meter
  • Rhyme
  • Internal Rhyme
  • Strategic Reticence
  • Writing "Slant"
  • Women and poetry
Last modified: Wednesday, November 20, 2019, 3:59 PM