Some people have raised concerns about the technical difficulty of writing “classical poetry.” Actually, there is very little difficulty behind writing classical poetry. Classical poetry is simply poetry that is metered, thus contrasting with unmetered poetry, known as free verse. There is no requirement to rhyme or have a particular number of lines or anything else.

Basically, if your first line has ten syllables then your next line should have ten syllables. Or, if you prefer, your first line of poetry could be eight syllables and the second line could be seven. In that case, your third line should be eight syllables and your fourth line should be seven syllables. You get the idea.  (Where the stress falls on the syllables traditionally plays a significant role as well; however, beginners should not get intimidated by these verbal structures. For guidance on them see William Baer’s book “Writing Metrical Poetry.” The general requirement for classical poetry is to have regular form and good character, as discussed later in this entry)

For example, John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost” (1667) is written in heroic verse with ten syllables per line. There is no rhyming.

And, if when he was writing, a line has too many syllables, Milton said, cut out a vowel!

In Book 6 of “Paradise Lost,” he wrote “Fearless assault, and to the brow of Heav’n.” Milton simply turns the two-syllable word “heaven” into the one syllable word “heav’n” by replacing the “e” with an apostrophe. Presto!

Further, while Milton is strict about his syllables, some classical poets using rhyming cannot be so strict and will use the rhythm (stressed/unstressed beats natural to the English language) that allow a little bit of syllabic flexibility. See the first four stanzas of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “A Psalm of Life” (1839) below. I have added the number of syllables per line in parentheses at the ends of each line:

Tell me not, in mournful numbers, (8)
Life is but an empty dream! (7)
For the soul is dead that slumbers, (8)
And things are not what they seem. (7)

Life is real!  Life is earnest! (7)
And the grave is not its goal; (7)
Dust thou art, to dust returnest, (8)
Was not spoken of the soul. (7)

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, (8)
Is our destined end or way; (7)
But to act, that each to-morrow (8)
Find us farther than to-day. (7)

Art is long, and Time is fleeting, (8)
And our hearts, though stout and brave, (7)
Still, like muffled drums, are beating (8)
Funeral marches to the grave. (8)

You can see that the most consistent meter here is 8/7, but in actual practice the syllables fluctuate.

One recommendation when writing metered poetry is to get a general idea for the meter you want after the first few lines spring to mind, and then just start writing. Let the poetry flow forth unimpeded with the general idea of the meter you are maintaining in mind. When you look back after a little bit, you will find that some lines naturally come out metered and other lines can be tweaked or easily reworked to fit the overall meter of the poem.

Thus, writing classical poetry is technically easy. But wait, the technical aspect of poetry is actually secondary. The primary part is driven by the intangible elements: the character and insight of the poet him or herself.

With painting, sculpting, dancing, or performing music, the format itself, whether it be paint brushes or musical instruments, speaks of a certain level of sophistication. Poetry, however, is an art form that leaves the artist relatively naked. Anyone can write words down, so the main focus is immediately the poet’s character and insight. These intangible elements to poetry are reflected in every word, idea, and theme represented.

For example, Milton was at the forefront of the English Reformation, a movement that reformed the corruption that had been bred in Catholicism and the monarchy at the time. The cultural, social, and institutional reforms and insights he helped crystallize would leave an impression on civilization that can be felt even today, over 300 years later. Longfellow was a pillar of American society during his time, composing poems that not only entertained the masses but were grounded in strong values and deep reverence for nature and the divine.

The moral of the story: writing classical poetry is easy, being a classical poet is the hard part.

[Featured Image: Chamber of the Royal Madame, painted by Domenico Guidobono.]

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3 Responses

  1. penny turner

    Thankyou for this. I have an MA in English Literature and Language, and I know about metre etc.. but somehow I understand it much better now..

    Reply
  2. F.J. Bergmann

    Note that “meter” refers to the stresses per line, and the placement of those stresses, rather than the number of syllables. Longfellow, above, is writing in tetrameter, with four stressed syllables per line.

    Reply

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