What Made the Harp Go Silent? Rediscovering Narrative Poetry

July 14, 2009

One major loss in our culture that is not widely remarked upon is the death of narrative and recitative poetry. I got to thinking of this subject while reading Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake (1810), a romantic narrative of some 120 pages taking its background from the 16th century conflict between King James V of Scotland and some rebellious clans of the Highlands.  It features several memorable scenes including a duel to the death between the chief protagonist and antagonist, and is colored by Scott’s usual themes of chivalry and honor. The poem was hugely popular not only in Britain but in the United States for over a century, but now is essentially forgotten. This fact should surprise us more than it does. Why do poems like this, widely read and loved well into the 20th century, now seem even more alien than those of Shakespeare?

My position is not that of an aficionado who wants to share his passion with others. To the contrary, I am not a highly experienced reader of poetry. It took considerable time and more than one reading before I became comfortable with The Lady. The problem is partly the archaic language, but even more, modern readers are not at all trained to enjoy the leisurely cinematic rolling out of events and scenes meant to be savored more for the way they are told, than for suspense or depth of character.

I was always more inclined to the humanities than to the sciences, but I never had any appreciation for poetry, except such as was found in song lyrics. The little I read in school didn’t capture my imagination much. The discussion of poetic devices gave the impression that poetry is an obscure intellectual exercise in which a poet decides, for instance, “I’ll use alliteration here to intensify the pathos,” and the reader’s task is to identify the techniques. Robin Williams portrays the harmful effect of such instruction beautifully in his role as a teacher in the film Dead Poets Society. In the film, he has his students read the introduction to a poetry textbook which declares that the value of poetry can be calculated and charted on a graph. Williams then tells the boys that is nonsense: the real purpose of poetry is “to woo women” and then has them tear out the offending introduction from the book.

I did know people who loved poetry fiercely. At college, I knew a girl who wrote deeply personal and sometimes cryptic free-form poems. She seemed to use it for self-expression, or as a kind of therapy. I was impressed by her intense involvement with poetry, but couldn’t relate to it myself. Then there was my father, who had written poetry in his youth and could recite famous poems by heart. (He did think Dead Poets Society was a great movie, which makes me wonder about his original motivations!) This, too, was impressive, but also seemed rather eccentric and pedantic – again, not something I could relate to.

Not too many years ago, I had a small breakthrough when I realized that there is no trick to reading poetry – you can just read it as you do a novel or essay, for its content. Sure, hearing it read aloud would be better, and knowledge of the poetic forms helps, but the primary content of the poem – its language – is perfectly accessible through reading. So I began reading some of the great poets again, and, perhaps aided by greater maturity, was able to do better with it.

I think that part of the modern ideal, is close to that of my college friend, who would have agreed with Emily Dickinson in seeing the individual, subjective, emotional response as being the most important thing. Of course, Dickinson’s statement is wonderful and true in its own way:

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it.

If not about deep emotional states expressed in original language, modern poetry, like other modern art, seems to be preoccupied with itself, interested in de-familiarizing ordinary experiences and playing with different layers of meaning. An example from Richard Wilbur:

A Measuring Worm

This yellow striped green
Caterpillar, climbing up
The steep window screen,

Constantly (for lack
Of a full set of legs) keeps
Humping up his back….

Interesting, but hardly evocative of a Dickinsonian ecstasy.

A large portion of poetry in the English language, though, is what I will call narrative poetry. I have a very nice collection of it edited by Kingsley Amis, entitled The Faber Popular Reciter. (1) Poems of this type were “learned by heart and recited in class, or performed as turns at grown-up gatherings; they were sung in church or chapel or on other public occasions” (p. 15). This sort of poetry required “absolute clarity, heavy rhythms and noticeable rhymes with some break in the sense preferred at the end of the line.” Also, “[s]ubject-matter must suit the occasion by being public, popular, what unites the individual with some large group of his neighbours” (p. 16). Amis is talking about poetry as a civilizational practice, poetry as part of the common, living heritage of a people.

And these poems can be enjoyed by boys who like sports and guns (a large part of the imagined readership of this blog) as well as by sensitive college girls. It includes the old favorites, like “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere“:

He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower, as a signal light, —
One, if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm.”

The form cannot be written today (1978), wrote Amis, because

Clarity, heavy rhythms, strong rhymes and the rest are the vehicles of confidence, of a kind of innocence, of shared faiths and other long-extinct states of mind. The two great themes of popular verse were the nation and the Church, neither of which, to say the least, confers much sense of community any longer. Minor themes, like admiration of or desire for a simple rustic existence, have just been forgotten. The most obvious cause of it all is the disintegrative shock of the Great War. (p. 18)

We still know, on some level, that a national poetry is needed. Indeed, the Obama inauguration featured a reading of a poem that quite accurately reflected the current state of the American “nation” that elected this president – a collection of strangers, alien to each other:

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

The fact that it was beyond-parody awful has everything to do with the fact that production and consumption of poetry – or any art of any depth – requires an audience with shared values and understandings. For poetry, in particular, it requires a common language, and not just in the sense that Sonia Sotomayor and I both speak English, but a common mother tongue, including a shared heritage of stories and experience, a familiarity with conventional forms, and, to a certain degree, a shared ancestry. All of this was the case for the English-speaking peoples when Scott’s poem was written.

I would like to see a revival of narrative and recitative poetry. The Vanishing American website has been instructive and inspirational for me in its author’s featuring of important patriotic and declamatory poems, which she often does on significant dates, giving us a chance, at least in this “virtual” world, to have a national, communal poetic experience.

As for the Lady of the Lake, maybe next time I can say something about it. Suffice it to say for now that whatever flaws it may have, the notions of honor and chivalry it presents are by no means ludicrous, and the author’s admiration for the virtues of warriors is by no means a celebration of war and bellicosity, but quite the opposite.

For now, a tribute to the power of poetry from the end of the poem, sung by the narrator to his “muse” from whom he has fancifully borrowed an abandoned Celtic harp:

Much have I owed thy strains on life’s long way,
Through secret woes the world has never known,
When on the weary night dawn’d wearier day,
And bitterer was the grief devour’d alone.
That I o’erlive such woes, Enchantress! is thine own. (Canto VI)


(1) Kingsley Amis ed., The Faber Popular Reciter, London: Faber and Faber, 1978.