Ah, poetry. One of the great literary forms, with a history stretching back as far as the earliest written word! Beloved genre of such giants as Sappho, Homer, Chaucer, and the anonymous author of The Poetic Works of a Weird (1827). Being writers themselves, surely our novelists must have a healthy respect for the poetical arts?
Interestingly, appraisals of poetry in our corpus are… mixed. Yes, we hear of many characters reading, writing and enjoying poetry as part of their day-to-day experience on the page. But there is also a surprising amount of bad poetry in evidence. Could it be that our novelists occasionally like to take the opportunity to have a subtle joke at the expense of their rivals*?
Lord Henry Wotton has thoughts on the subject! Well, of course he does.
The only artists I have ever known who are personally delightful are bad artists. Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are. A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write.
– The Picture of Dorian Gray, chapter 4
Jane Austen is a champion of novelists, but has no time for faffing about with verse when the serious business of romance is at stake.
“…[T]here was a gentleman at my brother Gardiner’s in town, so much in love with [Jane], that my sister-in-law was sure he would make her an offer before we came away. But however he did not. Perhaps he thought her too young. However, he wrote some verses on her, and very pretty they were.”
“And so ended his affection,” said Elizabeth Bennet impatiently. “There has been many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!”
“I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love,” said Mr. Darcy.
“Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Every thing nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”
– Pride and Prejudice, chapter 9
Tsk tsk, unnamed Gentleman At My Brother Gardiner’s. Poetry is no substitute for action. As one of the great poetic voices of our own generation might have said: if he liked it, he should have put a ring on it.
Meanwhile, there is a fair amount of poetry in evidence in Waverley, and some of it is even described as being quite good! However, it’s quite possible that the bar for what is considered good poetry may have been set… somewhat low.
His tutor, or, I should say, Mr. Pembroke, for he scarce assumed the name of tutor, picked up about Edward’s room some fragments of irregular verse, which he appeared to have composed under the influence of the agitating feelings occasioned by this sudden page being turned up to him in the book of life. The doctor, who was a believer in all poetry which was composed by his friends, and written out in fair straight lines, with a capital at the beginning of each, communicated this treasure to Aunt Rachel…
– Waverley, chapter 5
The poem in question (on the merits of a certain Miss Cecilia Stubbs) is included in this chapter, and although I am really no judge of poetry, I can confirm that there does appear to be a capital letter at the start of each line.
Finally, Charlotte Riddell’s heroine Beryl Molozane may speak for many of our writers, when she voices her exhaustion with her beloved (but prolific) younger sister’s epic compositions in verse:
“Now, if she would write prose, I should be able to read her things; but poetry oh, if you could but imagine how it wearies me!”
– George Geith of Fen Court, chapter 23
*Of course there isn’t really a strong distinction between poets and novelists, especially not during the 19th century – Walter Scott, for example, was massively famous for both his poetry and his prose. As a blogger, I reserve the right to make straw-man arguments to provide a flimsy pretext for posting quotes that amuse me. But feel free to argue with me in the comments if you feel so inclined!