An Anatomy of Abuses: Why Bad Poetry is Bad

by John Bellairs
The Censer, The College of Saint Teresa, Winter 1965

That marvelously uninspired poetry which the Sailor in The Four Men describes as "not sloppy verse, not wasty, pappy verse, not verse blanchified, but strong, heavy, brown bad verse" is very seldom analyzed by serious critics. This is unfortunate, since a careful examination of the more spectacular examples of wretched verse can show us what it is that we admire in good poetry. Not much can be gained, however, from a study of the more obvious poetic faults: badly chosen or ineptly handled subject matter, serious treatment of ludicrous things, sentimentality, banality, and what the editors of The Stuffed Owl call "obstipation, or constipation of the poetic faculty" are all abundantly present in the best bad verse, but they are obvious flaws which need not be treated in a strictly stylistic analysis. Instead, I have limited myself to a study of the errors which result from the poet's misuse of language, rhetoric, metaphor, metrics, and other poetic devices. My aim is not merely to collect examples of bathos, bombast, and turgidity, but to define the nature of the stylistic flaws which create such ludicrous effects.

The most basic errors in styles are found on the level of diction, or choice of words. Of these blunders, the most elementary are those caused by an imperfect grasp of the language. The Babu poet who wrote

Dust to dust, and ashes to ashes,
Into the tomb the Great Queen dashes.
obviously did not have much knowledge of the denotation of "dashes," much less of its connotations. A similar error caused James Hogg's interesting coinages in this couplet:
Bird of the wilderness,
Blithesome and cumberless.
The addition of the supposedly poetic and metrically helpful "-some" to "blithe" is merely a bit silly, but "cumberless" shows that the poet is ignorant of the most basic rule of word-coinage: the mere addition of a negative suffix does not give a word a whole new set of connotations. No woman would be pleased at being called "unfat" or "non-disgusting," and, similarly, no alteration of "cumbersome" can escape the basic flavor of the word.

Other poets are adept at using words with unfortunate connotations: when Mrs. Browning wrote of

Our Euripides, the human,
With his droppings of warm tears.
she was not aware that "droppings" is almost always connected with animal dung, especially that of birds. Again, Leigh Hunt might have carried off his panegyric on Lady Blessington if he had not finished by calling her
A Grace after dinner-a Venus grown fat.
A more subtle error of this kind is committed by Lord Tennyson in this line:
He suddenly dropt dead of heart-disease.
The introduction of the almost technical term "heart-disease" produces bathos, although it was unwise in the first place for the poet to insist on telling us the cause of death. Words connected with death are always tricky, as these lines prove:
And his sickly daughter, with frenzied pains,
Dragged from the fire his old remains.
The word "remains" is a funeral-parlor euphemism almost drained of human qualities; to call them "old remains" is to attempt to invest the coldly impersonal with personality. The whole phrase, oddly enough, suggests faintly the derogatory sense of "old," as in "the same old thing."

Euphemism is a common stylistic fault, and generally occurs when the poet feels ill at ease with his subject, or thinks it will not be properly "poetic" if dealt with on its own terms: Tennyson plainly felt that Enoch Arden's fishmongering had to be dressed up, so he made him a purveyor of "ocean-spoil." Augustan poets, with their very strict rules for poetic diction, loaded their lines with "verdant groves," "feathered tribes," and "spacious orbs" in an attempt to avoid banality, but often succeeded only in producing the clumsiest circumlocutions:

The star-surveying sage close to his eye
Applies the sight-invigorating tube.
When eighteenth-century diction is used to clothe really banal subject matter, the effect is even worse: Solyman Brown, who sings the praises of the dentist, calls teeth "ivory disks" and "Banks of snow"; John Armstrong, while versifying on gastric ills, honors Chesire cheese by calling it
...that which Cestria sends, tenacious paste
Of solid milk.
On cold showers, the same poet adds:
Against the rigours of a damp cold heaven
To fortify their bodies, some frequent
The gelid cistern...
This invented syntax combines with such words as "gelid" to give the passage an unintentional mock heroic effect. Pope could not have done better.

Similar to euphemism and circumlocution is polysyllabicity: besides being clumsy and often imprecise, long Latinate words are very often purged of all color and crispness, and in Alfred Austin's lines on the "umbrageous vicarage." The worst offenders in this area are Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Holley Chivers, contemporaries who probably borrowed words from one another. Each used exotic diction to convey a sense of the remote, the mystic, and the romantic; Poe's lush style is well known, and probably at its best (or worst) in Ulalume, where such words as "liquescent," "senescent," and scoriac" are common. Chivers, however, exceeds Poe in pomposity; it would be impossible to read the former's Rosalie Lee without a thesaurus:

Many mellow Cydonian suckets,
Sweet apples, anthosmial, divine,
From the ruby-rimmed beryline buckets,
Star-gemmed, lily-shaped, hyaline:
Like the sweet golden goblet found growing
On the wild emerald cucumber-tree
Rich, brilliant, like chrysoprase glowing,
Was my beautiful Rosalie Lee.
This typical Chiversian passage shows the faults inherent in such diction. The connotative power of words is crucially important in poetry, but these obscure terms are so little used that they have almost no connotations, no image-making power; they are merely surrounded by a vague, musty aura of erudition and pomposity. As descriptive terms, words like "reboantic" and "luminiferous" are worse than useless. Such monstrosities are actually only effective when used ironically, as in Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service.

Proper names, like pompous words, can work a poet's ruin; the following examples show that there are some names which were never meant for poetry:

Methinks of Friendship's frequent fate
I hear my FROGLEY'S voice complain.
...
I might comply-but how will Bloomer act,
When he becomes acquainted with the fact?
...
And I was ask'd and authorized to go
To seek the firm of Clutterbuck and Co.
The last two sections are by Crabbe, who had a genius for such things. Poets who praised the Georges had similar troubles:
Through Earth's wide bound
Shall GEORGE resound,
My theme, my duty, and my choice.
Here the bathos comes, not from the name itself, but from the concept of the name "George" being shouted throughout the world; one thinks immediately of a mother calling her son to supper.

Rhetorical or syntactic faults, like bad diction, are common in poor poetry, since the way a poet uses phrases and sentences is at least as important as his choice of words. Poe has a wearisome way of repeating long passages, sometimes changing only one or two words:

Till the fair and gentle Eulalie became my blushing bride-
Till the yellow-haired young Eulalie became my smiling bride.
This kind of echoing is, at best, a cheap trick, and when it becomes characteristic of an author's style, it bores. Furthermore, as we read more of Poe, we feel that this device is supposed to have a mystic and haunting effect, and this irritates us.

The exclamatory style of Edward Young is equally offensive. He sprays ejaculations, commands, and assorted hysterical shrieks through his poems like birdshot; unfortunately, he seldom has emotional content sufficient to raise his rhetoric above the level of bombastic ranting. This is typical:

What pow'rful charm
Can death disarm?
Your long, your iron slumbers break?
By Jove, by Fame,
By GEORGE'S name,
Awake! awake! awake! awake!
In such verse, everything, and therefore nothing, is emphasized.

Both laborious and telescoped phrasing can mar the rhetoric of a poem. Wordsworth commits the former error on two notable occasions:

A fly that up and down himself doth shove.
...
Once more the Ass, with motion dull,
Upon the pivot of his skull
Turned round his long left ear.
Much of the absurdity of the first example is due to the inept word "shove," but the whole phrase stretches a simple action into a fear of calisthenics. In the second case, the poet has described a simple motion in too great detail; seldom has it taken a donkey longer to move his ear.