Guest post by Timothy E.G. Bartel
In the last post, we saw that Aristotle, with his focus on plot essentials and picking the best meter for each type of story, had hit upon surprisingly popular and long-lasting set of rules for poetic storytelling. It would take a clever English courtier named Chaucer to change this. In 1400 Chaucer published The Canterbury Tales, in which he traded Tragedy and Epic for the shorter, more comic poems called tales. He wrote these tales in iambic meter, but didn’t focus on gods or heroes. It was common people—their flaws, mishaps, and lessons learned—that Chaucer wrote about.
The Ballad in Action
These tales caught on. Renaissance Europe loved them. The ballad, with its short lines and stanzas that were easy to set to music, was the most popular form in which to tell tales. Among other subjects, we owe to these ballads the earliest tales of Robin Hood.
Why were ballads so good at telling tales? Let’s look at a stanza of a ballad by the early 19th-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
And now the Storm-Blast came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o’ertaking wings,
And chaséd south along. (“The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”, lines 41–44)
Coleridge’s short lines avoid lengthy descriptions. Instead, they highlight the key qualities of the events they describe. Coleridge arranges his iambic meter so that the words “storm,” “strong,” and “struck” are stressed within their respective lines. This is a simple, masterful way that poetic meter can aid storytelling.
The Rise of the Lyric and the Novel
But time was running out for poetic storytelling. A new form, which had been brewing in Europe since the Renaissance, would dethrone the poem in Coleridge’s lifetime: the Novel. Why did this happen?
First, poets were losing faith in Aristotle’s genres of Tragedy and Epic. Instead, the Romantic poets of the early 1800s poured their energy into writing in Aristotle’s fourth genre: the Lyric. Why lyric? Lyric poetry describes the feelings and thoughts of the poet in reaction to daily life. Lyric fit in very nicely with the Romantic poets’ mission to bring emotion and mystery back into vogue in a world that was too obsessed, they thought, with science, numbers, and cold, hard facts. The lyric poem could remind the reader that they had a soul that was made to feel, to worship, to romp in the woods, to fall in love.
Second, there was sheer power and delight of the novel. Even as the Romantic poets were writing popular lyric poems, the novels of Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, and Sir Walter Scott were hitting the shelves of Britain and America. Not only were the new novelists writing complex and engaging stories in prose form, but the Romantic poets seemed uninterested in rivaling these stories with tragedies or epics of their own. The Victorian poets in the mid to late 1800s did try to return to more serious narrative poems, but they were often matched and outsold by the novels of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Mark Twain. Finally, the Modernist poets of the early twentieth century rejected the poetic stories of the Victorians, and wrote free verse lyric instead. Thus the final nail in the coffin had been struck. English language poetry, it seemed, would no longer be interested in telling stories.
How can we rediscover the narrative poem? Stay tuned!
Want to read more? Check out “Strategic Breakdown: The Developmental Edit” and “Lessons in Perseverance from a Dissertation Drained Writer.”
Timothy E. G. Bartel is a poet and educator who currently serves as Assistant Professor of Literature at Houston Baptist University. His poems and translations have appeared in such publications as Christianity and Literature, Dreams and Nightmares, Pilgrimage, Relief, and Saint Katherine Review. His first book of poems is The Martyr, The Grizzly, The Gold (Damascene Press, 2012), and his second, Arroyos, is forthcoming this spring (Mariscat Press, 2015). Timothy is the founding editor of Californios Review, which features new writing from West Coast writers.