What Is a Poem? Coleridge on Science vs. Romance, 1817
By Maria Popova
“True poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity,” Edward Hirsch wrote in his treatise on how to read a poem. “Poetry must resemble prose, and both must accept the vocabulary of their time,” W. B. Yeats argued in his 1936 meditation on modern poetry. But what, exactly, is a poem? In Biographia Literaria (public library; public domain), originally published in 1817 and now available as a free Kindle download, English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge offers an eloquent definition:
A poem contains the same elements as a prose composition; the difference, therefore, must consist in a different combination of them, in consequence of a different object proposed. The mere addition of meter does not in itself entitle a work to the name of poem, for nothing can permanently please which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise. Our definition of a poem may be thus worded. “A poem is that species of composition which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.”
For, in a legitimate poem, the parts must mutually support and explain each other; all in their proportion harmonizing with, and supporting the purpose and known influences of, metrical arrangement.
And yet, the notion that a poem is diametrically opposed to science — while appropriate in the context of Coleridge’s time, as he pioneered the Romantic Movement — seems tragically reductionist today. What of Dianne Ackerman’s beautiful poems about the planets of the Solar System? Or life science professor and clock researcher Mary E. Harrintong’s poetic ode to bioluminescent creatures? Or physicist J. W. V. Storey’s scientific paper published as a 38-stanza poem? Perhaps the mesmerism of poetry, like that of science, lives in that magical place of systematic wonder.
In fact, Coleridge was rather opposed to innovation in poetry, accusing modern poets of having substituted substance of message for gimmickry of medium:
One great distinction between even the characteristic faults of our elder poets and the false beauties of the moderns is this. In the former, from Donne to Cowley, we find the most fantastic out-of-the-way thoughts, but the most pure and genuine mother English; in the latter, the most obvious thoughts, in language the most fantastic and arbitrary. Our faulty elder poets sacrificed the passion, and passionate flow of poetry, to the subtleties of intellect and to the starts of wit; the moderns to the glare and glitter of a perpetual yet broken and heterogeneous imagery. The one sacrificed the heart to the head, the other both heart and head to drapery.
It was precisely Coleridge’s cult of precision and knowledge at the expense of abstraction and beauty that inspired John Keats to come up with the concept of “negative capability”, advocating for comfort with uncertainty and nimbleness amidst changing context — a skill later advanced by poets and scientists alike.
Published March 1, 2013