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What Makes A Poem?
by [?]

All poetry is true, but all truth is not poetry. When Burns treats a natural-history theme, as in his verses on the mouse and the daisy, and even on the louse, how much more there is in them than mere natural history! With what a broad and tender philosophy he clothes them! how he identifies himself with the mouse and regards himself as its fellow mortal! So have Emerson’s “Titmouse” and “Humble-Bee” a better excuse for being than their natural history. So have McCarthy’s “For a Bunny” and “The Snake,” and “To a Worm.”


Poor unpardonable length,
All belly to the mouth,
Writhe then and wriggle,
If there’s joy in it!

My heel, at least, shall spare you.

A little sun on a stone,
A mouse or two,
And all that unreasonable belly
Is happy.

No wonder God wasn’t satisfied–
And went on creating.


Do you know you are green, little worm,
Like the leaf you feed on?
Perhaps it is on account of the birds, who would like to eat you.
But is there any reason why they shouldn’t eat you, little worm?

Do you know you are comical, little worm?
How you double yourself up and wave your head,
And then stretch out and double up again,
All after a little food.

Do you know you have a long, strange name, little worm?
I will not tell you what it is.
That is for men of learning.
You–and God–do not care about such things.


You would wave about and double up just as much, and be just as
futile, with it as without it.
Why do you crawl about on the top of that post, little worm?
It should have been a tree, eh? with green leaves for eating.
But it isn’t, and you have crawled about it all day, looking for a new
brown branch, or a green leaf.
Do you know anything about tears, little worm?

Or take McCarthy’s lines to the honey bee:

“Poor desolate betrayer of Pan’s trust,
Who turned from mating and the sweets thereof,
To make of labor an eternal lust,
And with pale thrift destroy the red of love,
The curse of Pan has sworn your destiny.
Unloving, unbeloved, you go your way
Toiling forever, and unwittingly
You bear love’s precious burden every day
From flower to flower (for your blasphemy),
Poor eunuch, making flower lovers gay.”

Or this:


I know a man who says
That he gets godliness out of a book.

He told me this as we sought arbutus
On the April hills–
Little color-poems of God
Lilted to us from the ground,
Lyric blues and whites and pinks.
We climbed great rocks,
Eternally chanting their gray elegies,
And all about, the cadenced hills
Were proud
With the stately green epic of the Almighty.

And then we walked home under the stars,
While he kept telling me about his book
And the godliness in it.

There are many great lyrics in our literature which have no palpable or deducible philosophy; but they are the utterance of deep, serious, imaginative natures, and they reach our minds and hearts. Wordsworth’s “Daffodils,” his “Cuckoo,” his “Skylark,” and scores of others, live because they have the freshness and spontaneity of birds and flowers themselves.

Such a poem as Gray’s “Elegy” holds its own, and will continue to hold it, because it puts in pleasing verse form the universal human emotion which all persons feel more or less when gazing upon graves.

The intellectual content of Scott’s poems is not great but the human and emotional content in them is great. A great minstrel of the border speaks in them. The best that Emerson could say of Scott was that “he is the delight of generous boys,” but the spirit of romance offers as legitimate a field for the poet as does the spirit of transcendentalism, though yielding, of course, different human values.

Every poet of a high order has a deep moral nature, and yet the poet is far from being a mere moralist–

“A reasoning, self-sufficing thing,
An intellectual all-in-all.”

Every true poem is an offering upon the altar of art; it exists to no other end; it teaches as nature teaches; it is good as nature is good; its art is the art of nature; it brings our spirits in closer and more loving contact with the universe; it is for the edification of the soul.