Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of John Burroughs > Text of What Makes A Poem?

An essay by John Burroughs

What Makes A Poem?

Title:     What Makes A Poem?
Author: John Burroughs [More Titles by Burroughs]

Pope said that a middling poet was no poet at all. Middling things in art or in any field of human endeavor do not arouse our enthusiasm, and it is enthusiasm that fans the fires of life. There are all degrees of excellence, but in poetry one is always looking for the best. Pope himself holds a place in English literature which he could not hold had he been only a middling poet. He is not a poet of the highest order certainly, but a poet of the third or fourth order--the poet of the reason, the understanding, but not of the creative imagination. It is wit and not soul that keeps Pope alive.

Nearly every age and land has plenty of middling poets. Probably there were never more of them in the land than there are to-day. Scores of volumes of middling verse are issued from the press every week. The magazines all have middling verse; only at rare intervals do they have something more. The May "Atlantic," for instance, had a poem by a (to me) comparatively new writer, Olive Tilford Dargan, that one would hardly stigmatize as middling poetry. Let the reader judge for himself. It is called "Spring in the Study." I quote only the second part:

"What is this sudden gayety that shakes the grayest boughs?
A voice is calling fieldward--'T is time to start the ploughs!
To set the furrows rolling, while all the old crows nod;
And deep as life, the kernel, to cut the golden sod.
The pen--let nations have it;--we'll plough a while for God.

"When half the things that must be done are greater than our art,
And half the things that must be done are smaller than our heart,
And poorest gifts are dear to burn on altars unrevealed,
Like music comes the summons, the challenge from the weald!
'They tread immortal measures who make a mellow field!'

"The planet's rather pleasant, alluring in its way;
But let the ploughs be idle and none of us can stay.
Here's where there is no doubting, no ghosts uncertain stalk,
A-traveling with the plough beam, beneath the sailing hawk,
Cutting the furrow deep and true where Destiny will walk."

Lafcadio Hearn spoke with deep truth when he said that "the measure of a poet is the largeness of thought which he can bring to any subject, however trifling." Certainly Mrs. Dargan brings this largeness of thought to her subject. Has the significance of the plough ever before been so brought out? She makes one feel that there should be a plough among the constellations. What are the chairs and harps and dippers in comparison?

The poetry of mere talent is always middling poetry--"poems distilled from other poems," as Whitman says. The work of a genius is of a different order. Most current verse is merely sweetened prose put up in verse form. It serves its purpose; the mass of readers like it. Nearly all educated persons can turn it off with little effort. I have done my share of it myself--rhymed natural history, but not poetry. "Waiting" is my nearest approach to a true poem.

Wordsworth quotes Aristotle as saying that poetry is the most philosophical of all writing, and Wordsworth agrees with him. There certainly can be no great poetry without a great philosopher behind it--a man who has thought and felt profoundly upon nature and upon life, as Wordsworth himself surely had. The true poet, like the philosopher, is a searcher after truth, and a searcher at the very heart of things--not cold, objective truth, but truth which is its own testimony, and which is carried alive into the heart by passion. He seeks more than beauty, he seeks the perennial source of beauty. The poet leads man to nature as a mother leads her child there--to instill a love of it into his heart. If a poet adds neither to my knowledge nor to my love, of what use is he? For instance, Poe does not make me know more or love more, but he delights me by his consummate art. Bryant's long poem "The Ages" has little value, mainly because it is charged with no philosophy, and no imaginative emotion. His "Lines to a Waterfowl" will last because of the simple, profound human emotion they awaken. The poem is marred, however, by the stanza that he tacks on the end, which strikes a note entirely foreign to the true spirit of the poem. You cannot by tacking a moral to a poem give it the philosophical breadth to which I have referred. "Thanatopsis" has a solemn and majestic music, but not the unique excellence of the waterfowl poem. Yet it may be generally said of Bryant that he has a broad human outlook on life and is free from the subtleties and ingenious refinements of many of our younger poets.

I know of only three poets in this century who bring a large measure of thought and emotion to their task. I refer to William Vaughn Moody, to John Russell McCarthy (author of "Out-of-Doors" and "Gods and Devils"), and to Robert Loveman, best known for his felicitous "Rain Song," a poem too well known to be quoted here. Any poet who has ever lived might have been proud to have written that poem. It goes as lightly as thistle-down, yet is freighted with thought. Its philosophy is so sublimated and so natural and easy that we are likely to forget that it has any philosophy at all. The fifty or more stanzas of his "Gates of Silence" are probably far less well known. Let me quote a few of them:

"The races rise and fall,
The nations come and go,
Time tenderly doth cover all
With violets and snow.

"The mortal tide moves on
To some immortal shore,
Past purple peaks of dusk and dawn,
Into the evermore.

* * * * *

"All the tomes of all the tribes,
All the songs of all the scribes,
All that priest and prophet say,
What is it? and what are they?

"Fancies futile, feeble, vain,
Idle dream-drift of the brain,--
As of old the mystery
Doth encompass you and me.

* * * * *

"Old and yet young, the jocund Earth
Doth speed among the spheres,
Her children of imperial birth
Are all the golden years.

"The happy orb sweeps on,
Led by some vague unrest,
Some mystic hint of joys unborn
Springing within her breast."

What takes one in "The Gates of Silence," which, of course, means the gates of death, are the large, sweeping views. The poet strides through time and space like a Colossus and

Out of his spendthrift hands
The whirling worlds like pebbles,
The meshed stars like sands."

Loveman's stanzas have not the flexibility and freedom of those of Moody and McCarthy, but they bring in full measure the largeness of thought which a true poem requires.

Some of Moody's poems rank with the best in the literature of his time. He was deeply moved by the part we played in the Spanish-American War. It was a war of shame and plunder from the point of view of many of the noblest and most patriotic men of the country. We freed Cuba from the Spanish yoke and left her free; but we seized the Philippines and subdued the native population by killing a vast number of them--more than half of them, some say. Commercial exploitation inspired our policy. How eloquently Senator Hoar of Massachusetts inveighed against our course! We promised the Filipinos their freedom--a promise we have not yet fulfilled.

Moody's most notable poems are "Gloucester Moors," "An Ode in Time of Hesitation" (inspired by the Shaw Monument in Boston, the work of Saint-Gaudens), "The Brute," "The Daguerreotype," and "On a Soldier Fallen in the Philippines." In this last poem throb and surge the mingled emotions of pride and shame which the best minds in the country felt at the time--shame at our mercenary course, and pride in the fine behavior of our soldiers. It is true we made some pretense of indemnifying Spain by paying her twenty million dollars, which was much like the course of a boy who throws another boy down and forcibly takes his jack-knife from him, then gives him a few coppers to salve his wounds. I remember giving Moody's poem to Charles Eliot Norton (one of those who opposed the war), shortly after it appeared. He read it aloud with marked emotion. Let me quote two of its stanzas:

"Toll! Let the great bells toll
Till the clashing air is dim.
Did we wrong this parted soul?
We will make it up to him.
Toll! Let him never guess
What work we set him to.
Laurel, laurel, yes;
He did what we bade him do.
Praise, and never a whispered hint but the fight he fought was good;
Never a word that the blood on his sword was his country's own

"A flag for the soldier's bier
Who dies that his land may live;
O, banners, banners here,
That he doubt not nor misgive!
That he heed not from the tomb
The evil days draw near
When the nation, robed in gloom,
With its faithless past shall strive.
Let him never dream that his bullet's scream went wide of its island mark,
Home to the heart of his darling land where she stumbled and sinned in the dark."

When I say that every true poet must have a philosophy, I do not mean that he must be what is commonly called a philosophical poet; from such we steer clear. The philosophy in a poem must be like the iron in the blood. It is the iron that gives color and vigor to the blood. Reduce it and we become an anaemic and feeble race. Much of the popular poetry is anaemic in this respect. There is no virile thought in it. All of which amounts to saying that there is always a great nature back of a great poem.

The various forms of verse are skillfully used by an increasing number of educated persons, but the number of true poets is not increasing. Quite the contrary, I fear. The spirit of the times in which we live does not favor meditation and absorption in the basic things out of which great poetry arises. "The world is too much with us." Yet we need not be too much discouraged. England has produced Masefield, and we have produced John Russell McCarthy, who has written the best nature poetry since Emerson. The genius of a race does not repeat. We shall never again produce poets of the type of those that are gone, and we should not want to. All we may hope for is to produce poets as original and characteristic and genuine as those of the past--poets who as truly express the spirit of their time, as the greater poets did of theirs--not Emerson and Whitman over again, but a wide departure from their types.

Speaking of Whitman, may we not affirm that it is his tremendous and impassioned philosophy suffusing his work, as the blood suffuses the body, that keeps "Leaves of Grass" forever fresh? We do not go to Whitman for pretty flowers of poesy, although they are there, but we go to him for his attitude toward life and the universe, we go to stimulate and fortify our souls--in short, for his cosmic philosophy incarnated in a man.

What largeness of thought Tennyson brings to all his themes! There is plenty of iron in his blood, though it be the blood of generations of culture, and of an overripe civilization. We cannot say as much of Swinburne's poetry or prose. I do not think either will live. Bigness of words, and fluency, and copiousness of verse cannot make up for the want of a sane and rational philosophy. Arnold's poems always have real and tangible subject matter. His "Dover Beach" is a great stroke of poetic genius. Let me return to Poe: what largeness of thought did he bring to his subjects? Emerson spoke of him as "the jingle man," and Poe, in turn, spoke of Emerson with undisguised contempt. Poe's picture indicates a neurotic person. There is power in his eyes, but the shape of his head is abnormal, and a profound melancholy seems to rest on his very soul. What a conjurer he was with words and meters and measures! No substance at all in his "Raven," only shadows--a wonderful dance of shadows, all tricks of a verbal wizard. "The Bells," a really powerful poem, is his masterpiece, unique in English literature; but it has no intellectual content. Its appeal is to the eye and ear alone. It has a verbal splendor and a mastery over measure and rhythm far beyond anything in Shelley, or in any other poet of his time. It is art glorified; it is full of poetic energy. No wonder foreign critics see in Poe something far beyond that found in any other American, or in any British poet!

Poe set to work to write "The Raven" as deliberately as a mechanic goes to work to make a machine, or an architect to build a house. It was all a matter of calculation with him. He did not believe in long poems, hence decided at the outset that his poem should not be more than one hundred lines in length. Then he asked himself, what is the legitimate end and aim of a poem? and answered emphatically, Beauty. The next point to settle was, what impression must be made to produce that effect? He decided that "melancholy is the most legitimate of all poetic tones." Why joy or gladness, like that of the birds, is not equally legitimate, he does not explain. Then, to give artistic piquancy to the whole, he decided that there must be "some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn." He found that "no one had been so universally employed as the refrain." The burden of the poem should be given by the refrain, and it should be a monotone, and should have brevity. Then his task was to select a single word that would be in keeping with the melancholy at which he was aiming, and this he found in the word _nevermore_. He next invented a pretext for the frequent but varying use of _nevermore_. This word could not be spoken in the right tone by a human being; it must come from an unreasoning creature, hence the introduction of the raven, an ill-omened bird, in harmony with the main tone of the poem. He then considered what was the most melancholy subject of mankind, and found it was death, and that that melancholy theme was most poetical when allied to beauty. Hence the death of a beautiful woman was unquestionably the most poetic topic in the world. It was equally beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic were those of a bereaved lover. Thus he worked himself up, or rather back, to the climax of the poem, for he wrote the last stanza, in which the climax occurs, first. His own analysis of the poem is like a chemist's analysis of some new compound he has produced; it is full of technical terms and subtle distinctions. Probably no other famous poem was turned out in just that studied and deliberate architectural way--no pretense of inspiration, or of "eyes in fine frenzy rolling": just skilled craftsmanship--only this and nothing more.

Arnold's dictum that poetry is a criticism of life is, in a large and flexible sense, true. The poet does not criticize life as the conscious critic does, but as we unconsciously do in our most exalted moments. Arnold, I believe, did not appreciate Whitman, but one function of the poet upon which Whitman lays emphasis, is criticism of his country and times.

"What is this you bring, my America?
Is it uniform with my country?
Is it not something that has been better done or told before?
Have you not imported this or the spirit of it in some ship?
Is it not a mere tale? a rhyme? a pettiness?--is the good old cause
in it?
Has it not dangled long at the heels of the poets, politicians,
literates of enemies, lands?
Does it not assume that what is notoriously gone is still here?
Does it answer universal needs? will it improve manners?
Can your performance face the open fields and the seaside?
Will it absorb into me as I absorb food, air, to appear again in my
strength, gait, face?
Have real employments contributed to it?
Original makers, not mere amanuenses?"

Speaking of criticism, it occurs to me how important it is that a poet, or any other writer, should be a critic of himself. Wordsworth, who was a really great poet, was great only at rare intervals. His habitual mood was dull and prosy. His sin was that he kept on writing during those moods, grinding out sonnets by the hundred--one hundred and thirty-two ecclesiastical sonnets, and over half as many on liberty, all very dull and wooden. His mill kept on grinding whether it had any grist of the gods to grind or not. He told Emerson he was never in haste to publish, but he seems to have been in haste to write, and wrote on all occasions, producing much dull and trivial work. We speak of a man's work as being heavy. Let us apply the test literally to Wordsworth and weigh his verse. The complete edition of his poems, edited by Henry Reed and published in Philadelphia in 1851, weighs fifty-five ounces; the selection which Matthew Arnold made from his complete works, and which is supposed to contain all that is worth preserving, weighs ten ounces. The difference represents the dead wood. That Wordsworth was a poor judge of his own work is seen in the remark he made to Emerson that he did not regard his "Tintern Abbey" as highly as some of the sonnets and parts of "The Excursion." I believe the Abbey poem is the one by which he will longest be remembered. "The Excursion" is a long, dull sermon. Its didacticism lies so heavily upon it that it has nearly crushed its poetry--like a stone on a flower.

All poetry is true, but all truth is not poetry. When Burns treats a natural-history theme, as in his verses on the mouse and the daisy, and even on the louse, how much more there is in them than mere natural history! With what a broad and tender philosophy he clothes them! how he identifies himself with the mouse and regards himself as its fellow mortal! So have Emerson's "Titmouse" and "Humble-Bee" a better excuse for being than their natural history. So have McCarthy's "For a Bunny" and "The Snake," and "To a Worm."


Poor unpardonable length,
All belly to the mouth,
Writhe then and wriggle,
If there's joy in it!

_My_ heel, at least, shall spare you.

A little sun on a stone,
A mouse or two,
And all that unreasonable belly
Is happy.

No wonder God wasn't satisfied--
And went on creating.


Do you know you are green, little worm,
Like the leaf you feed on?
Perhaps it is on account of the birds, who would like to eat you.
But is there any reason why they shouldn't eat you, little worm?

Do you know you are comical, little worm?
How you double yourself up and wave your head,
And then stretch out and double up again,
All after a little food.

Do you know you have a long, strange name, little worm?
I will not tell you what it is.
That is for men of learning.
You--and God--do not care about such things.


You would wave about and double up just as much, and be just as
futile, with it as without it.
Why do you crawl about on the top of that post, little worm?
It should have been a tree, eh? with green leaves for eating.
But it isn't, and you have crawled about it all day, looking for a new
brown branch, or a green leaf.
Do you know anything about tears, little worm?

Or take McCarthy's lines to the honey bee:

"Poor desolate betrayer of Pan's trust,
Who turned from mating and the sweets thereof,
To make of labor an eternal lust,
And with pale thrift destroy the red of love,
The curse of Pan has sworn your destiny.
Unloving, unbeloved, you go your way
Toiling forever, and unwittingly
You bear love's precious burden every day
From flower to flower (for your blasphemy),
Poor eunuch, making flower lovers gay."

Or this:


I know a man who says
That he gets godliness out of a book.

He told me this as we sought arbutus
On the April hills--
Little color-poems of God
Lilted to us from the ground,
Lyric blues and whites and pinks.
We climbed great rocks,
Eternally chanting their gray elegies,
And all about, the cadenced hills
Were proud
With the stately green epic of the Almighty.

And then we walked home under the stars,
While he kept telling me about his book
And the godliness in it.

There are many great lyrics in our literature which have no palpable or deducible philosophy; but they are the utterance of deep, serious, imaginative natures, and they reach our minds and hearts. Wordsworth's "Daffodils," his "Cuckoo," his "Skylark," and scores of others, live because they have the freshness and spontaneity of birds and flowers themselves.

Such a poem as Gray's "Elegy" holds its own, and will continue to hold it, because it puts in pleasing verse form the universal human emotion which all persons feel more or less when gazing upon graves.

The intellectual content of Scott's poems is not great but the human and emotional content in them is great. A great minstrel of the border speaks in them. The best that Emerson could say of Scott was that "he is the delight of generous boys," but the spirit of romance offers as legitimate a field for the poet as does the spirit of transcendentalism, though yielding, of course, different human values.

Every poet of a high order has a deep moral nature, and yet the poet is far from being a mere moralist--

"A reasoning, self-sufficing thing,
An intellectual all-in-all."

Every true poem is an offering upon the altar of art; it exists to no other end; it teaches as nature teaches; it is good as nature is good; its art is the art of nature; it brings our spirits in closer and more loving contact with the universe; it is for the edification of the soul.

[The end]
John Burroughs's essay: What Makes A Poem?