The Goals of Poetry

A beer is for drinking. A sofa is for sitting. A poem is for… enjoyment? Edification? The imagination and expression of the indestructible order of the universe? Fart jokes?

According to Percy Shelley’s essay A Defense of Poetry, poetry “is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” Stated another way, the work of a poet is to “imagine and express [the world’s] indestructible order.” The problem with trying to create a definition based on these statements is that they are both over and under-inclusive for what we commonly think of as poetry. They are over-inclusive because Shelley means that any expression of eternal truth is poetry regardless of form; he includes the the essays of Francis Bacon and the histories of Herodotus, Plutarch, and Livy as poetry. The content, rather than the form defines the poem according to Shelley. The definitions are also under-inclusive because a dirty limerick, lacking any spark of eternal truth, appears to fall outside of the category of poetry. This sort of content based, distinction seems inappropriate for an art form that includes some very strict formal categories.

Although content based distinction between poetry and non-poetry may not be appropriate, content based criticism of poetry makes a lot of sense. Aristophanes makes a particularly appealing case study for this analysis for two reasons. In the first place, the content of Aristophanes’ plays is superficially very sophomoric; he peppers his work very liberally with scatological and sexual humor. Secondly, despite the ceaseless stream of crude jokes, Aristophanes clearly thinks that there are much bigger things at stake. In an earlier post, I noted that he used the chorus in The Wasps to chide the Athenian audience for not appreciating the good advice that he had provided the city in his plays.

In The Frogs, Aristophanes has the character of Euripides state that the most important trait of the poet is his ability to improve the audience through his wise counsels. This point is taken up by the character of Æschylus and seems very much in line with the tone of the chorus in The Wasps. In the play’s contest between Euripides and Æschylus for greatest all-time tragedian, Æschylus gets the win based not on the beauty of his verse, but on the superiority of his practical advice.

Like the analysis of Shelley, this seems to over-emphasize poetry’s content at the expense of its form. But it is important to note that Aristophanes couches all of this within a work of poetry rather than in a lecture or treatise. He is adamant that he has some very important things to say, but he does so within the structure of his verse. The key, it seems, is the proper balance between form and content. Even the most important and valuable content, if not presented beautifully will not be well received. And the most beautiful verse, without some substantial content, will ring hollow. If the characters in The Frogs are right that the true measure of quality of a poet is his ability to improve his audience, it is clear that the greatest effect on the audience will come from the most skillful combination of form and substance.

Beer of the week: Grolsh Lager – Grolsh is best known in the US for its iconic swing-top bottles. It is also available, it seems, in more standard long-necks. Aside from the bottle, this Dutch macro is unremarkable. It is clear, pale gold with lots of carbonation. Light aroma of toasted grain. Not much to it, but not bad at all.

Reading of the week: The Frogs by Aristophanes – A large part of the disagreement between Æschylus and Euripides in this play is whether characters should be realistic or idealized. Æschylus argues that idealized characters make for better role models, and are therefore better suited to improve the audience. Euripides, on the other hand, favors realistic characters because they are more relatable.

Question for the week: Does even the most shallow or juvenile poem deserve the title of “poetry” by virtue of its form alone?



This is the thirteenth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.

CHASTITY: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

Like Temperance, Frugality, and Silence, Franklin’s version of Chastity could easily be viewed as a sub-virtue of moderation. He does not advocate sexual abstinence any more than he advocates absolute silence, parsimony, or teetotaling. Rather, Franklin’s advice is to limit sexual exertion to a healthy level. Sex is not bad; over-indulgence is bad, particularly if it leads to a damaged reputation.

This view of chastity and eros would have served Hippolytus well. The mythical Hippolytus worshipped Artemis, the chaste goddess of the hunt, to the exclusion of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. In Euripides’ version of the story, Hippolytus comes on the scene with a an offering for Artemis: a “woven wreath, culled from a virgin meadow, where nor shepherd dares to herd his flock nor ever scythe hath mown, but o’er the mead unshorn the bee doth wing its way in spring; and with the dew from rivers drawn purity that garden tends.” And he follows this carefully cultivated sacrifice with a total rebuff of Aphrodite. “No god, whose worship craves the night,” he says, “hath charms for me.”

Hippolytus’ sage attendant understands the error of this attitude, and advises him to maintain at least “courteous affability” with all of the gods. Although he does not say so in so many words, this is because the gods of the Greek pantheon represent the many facets of humanity. It is fine, even proper, to have a favored god as a patron, but all of the gods must have their due. To deny any of the various gods entirely is to deny an entire aspect of human nature. And that is as true of Aphrodite as it is of the rest.

Beer of the week: Indio – When it comes to Mexican beers, darker is almost always better. This Mexican dark lager pours with big, sticky bubbles. The aroma is not much different than a Corona. The flavor is profile includes some rice and a slight hint of caramel that lingers. And, although it has more flavor than most pale lagers from south of the boarder, it is just about as refreshing.

Reading of the week: Hippolytus by Euripides – The play begins with Aphrodite spelling out exactly what her plan is to avenge herself upon Hippolytus. She is intent upon “bring to ruin all who vaunt themselves at” her.

Question for the week: Is rage particularly tied to love in a special way? Could Hephaestus, god of craftsmen, or Athena, goddess of wisdom, be as spiteful as Aphrodite?