Reading Poetry

This subject traces the main lines of descent in English-language poetry from the Renaissance to the modern period, concentrating mostly on English examples. We will study the poetic achievements of three groups of authors: (1) poets of the renaissance and seventeenth century, including Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell and Milton, (2) poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century, including Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Emily Dickinson, and (3) poets of the twentieth-century, including Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and Phillip Larkin.

Poetry departs from the apparently straightforward sentences of narrative, exposition and argument—the stuff of everyday writing and conversation—by how it makes use of metaphors and other figures of speech, whose meanings are often not immediately clear. But figurative language is not the exclusive property of poetry. On the contrary, metaphor is an inevitable characteristic not only of everyday, so-called literal speech but also of human thought, and poetry differs from everyday speech not because it uses metaphors but because it energizes, alters, and re-invents the figures of speech employed by non-poetic language. A linguistic community is marked by the metaphors that it lives by, and the nature of the relation between poetic metaphor and the effortless metaphors of everyday speech will be at the focus of our discussions.