To Poetry or, to Prose?

To Poetry or, to Prose?

Publish Date: 
Sunday, November 1, 2020

Poetry ± Prose: Friends or Foes?

Noor Ahmed Rafi, Radia-Al-Rashid, Sahedul Islam Hira, Sofia Zafrin Evana, Umme Hani Anika


“If kindred humours e’er would make

My spirit droop for drooping’s sake,

From Fancy following in thy wake,

Bright ship of heaven!

A counter impulse let me take

And be forgiven.”

~ William Wordsworth.

This is the last stanza of a beautiful poem by William Wordsworth titled “A Night Thought.” Wordsworth has defined poetry as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. T. S. Eliot, on the other hand, has said that poetry is not a turning loose of emotion. The modern poet W.H. Auden defined poem as constituting of two things. Firstly, it has to be well-constructed in a way that preserves the beauty of the language it is written in. Secondly, it has to be about a situation we can all relate to but must be expressed in a distinct way, that no one has ever said but when the poet says it, the readers can connect with it. Auden mentions these words in his foreword of the book Selected Poems written by Joseph Brodsky. This definition of poetry carries an air of Ezra Pound’s “make it new” motto. Whereas in prose, the creativity of the writer depends on the character, theme, argument which are conveyed with the use of language instead of being weaved in it.

Poetry is known as the earliest form of English Literature that still survives today. The earliest written sources of English literature that have been found in Britain date back to the 7th century when the Christian missionaries taught the English to write. Cædmonand Bede, are examples of poets during that time hailing from Northumbria. The tradition of composing heroic poetry like Beowulf and the Elegies, during the time of Old English Literature still continues to the present day. Most of the poems composed during this time held some religious value and were written in Latin, since the Christian missionaries taught in Latin.

However, prose writing came into existence in the year 899 A.D. during the reign of Alfred the Great.

The earliest surviving manuscripts of Old English Literature include the poems of Cædmon after 670 A.D. and Bede (673-735), whose language and style are quite different compared to Shakespeare and Chaucer and they were not studied as much from the Middle Ages to the reign of Queen Victoria. Only after translations, did the Old English Literature become more comprehensible and gain recognition, since the English Language has evolved a lot from the 5th century to the early 15th century. Though Cædmon was the first English poet whose writings survived, the first known English poet who composed poems in his native tongue is Aldhelm (640-709). Aldhelm composed sermons in verse, and a monograph in verse for a convent of nuns, on Virginity. Cædmon’s most notable works include, Genesis A, Daniel, Christ and Satan. Bede also contributed by writing Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731 A.D.), as well as his prose Life of St Cuthbert, and De Natura Rerum.

Similar to Greek literature, English literature also began with an epic, a poem of historic poets narrating the stories of heroes and of the world, human and non-human. Compared to the epics of Homer, Beowulf is short, with 3182 verses, but it is the longest as well as the richest of Old English poems.

The change in literary taste from the 11th to 13th century can be seen as a shift from the epics to romances. Examples include Latin Historia Regum Britanniae (c.1130-6) by Geoffrey of Monmouth (1155 A.D.). In Geoffrey’s wonderful History, he describes the adventures of King Arthur and the round table which inspired Marie de France to turn songs into short verse stories one of which is Sir Orfeo, a romance fairytale of Orpheus. More examples of English romance include King Horn (c.1225), Floris and Blancheflour (early 13th century), Havelok the Dane (c.1300), Bevis of Hampton and Guy of Warwick, all of which wereeight syllabic rhyming couplets, where Christian knights proved themselves against the Saracen. The idea of chivalry, knights serving the God and fulfilling quests for their lady love, were reflected in the romance literature of the Middle Ages. English prose during the Middle Ages were not as developed as poems were as such only a few examples of prose include Acrene Riwle, a rule for Anchoresses late rewritten as Acrene Wisse, Anchoresses’ Guide.

With Richard II’s accession as Britain’s ruler, the poetry took a more mature form, with the revival of alliterative verses in the poems like Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as Chaucer’s unique style of composing poems using the dream-vision form, a genre inspired by 13th-century French poem about courtly love, the Roman de la rose. His poem Book of Duchess, was of more than 1,300 lines written about Blanche, duchess of Lancaster, who lost her life in a plague. What is noteworthy is Chaucer opted for less number of lines in his later poetry composition like The Parlement of Foules which consisted of 699 lines. He again shifted back to writing more number of lines for his next poetry Troilus and Criseyde, a poem set in Troy describing the tenth year of the siege, written in 8239 lines. Chaucer’s most renowned work The Canterbury Tales, is a collection of tales, written in verse, with elements of satire. The Canterbury Tales is mainly categorized in the poetry genre but it also contained prose verses.

During the early Renaissance, the aspirations of the humanists and the writers were thwarted by the chaos of the Reformation and Henry VIII’s tyranny. However, during the late 1570s the Renaissance was revived by Sidney and Spenser, and the 1590s saw the production of – other than the drama – an exceptional number of non-dramatic poets and translators. This age produced a diversity of prose, artful, spirited and refined.

In order to establish a more native form of English, the need for prose became more apparent.

The function of prose is so diverse that a simple definition is not enough to explain that.

Religious prose began to gain prominence after the Reformation, since the Protestants decided to spread the word of God to everyone including the commoners. The prose in German and English Bible not only provided faith to the people but also developed the German and English language respectively. By 1539 Miles Coverdale (1488-1568), produced the first complete printed English Bible, and made it for the purpose to benefit the Church of England. Translators of that Bible kept the structure and rhythm of the Bible intact for the people to read and hear. However, modern Bible translators, keep the essence of the text but rephrase the words for speedy silent readers in a world where people want immediate gratification and require reading materials to be short and precise.

Macro narratives are slowly being forgotten and the perspective afforded by a general view is not widely available. Students of English leave school with the knowledge of a few notable works and would not look too favourably when they need to relate an unread writer to a context. The Elizabethan poet Samuel Daniel asked about the number of people who actually knew Spencer or Sidney or their books.

Regarding the status of literature, Beowulf makes it quite clear, that poetry was held in high regard in the earlier literary times. The Italian poet Dante, made the first formal claim of writing in a contemporary European colloquial language in 1307. A similar assertion was made for English by Philip Sidney in his Defence of Poetry (1579), deflecting an attack on theater. The public theaters were closed by Puritans in 1642. Following the reopening of the theaters in 1660, literature played a pivotal role in English civilization.

The fifteenth-century is comparatively barren and non-productive in the field of English literature. During this time little poetry of quality was written. The English and Scottish poets were very poor imitators of Chaucer both in the fields of subject matter and versification. But the prose literature of this age recorded considerable progress. There was a growing perception of the beauties of rhythm and cadence and there was the development of various prose styles including the ornate and the plain. The English prose undoubtedly moved forward during the 15th century to a certain richness that was unknown to the preceding age.

The slow progress of prose on national lines was due to the influence that Latin exercised on the minds of the prose writers of this age. They were also contented to be the translators of French works of repute. The prose in the century was developed much on trial and error basis. The promising prose writers of the century mainly sought to impart directness, vigor, and simplicity.

Fisher and Cranmer (1489-1556) popularized theological writings and historical prose which was presented in The Chronicle of England by Capgrave, who wrote in a business-like fashion. Philosophical prose appeared in The Governance of England by Fortescue. Elyot popularized educational prose and prepared the way for medical prose in the Castle of Health. William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible is highly praiseworthy.

The English Prose of the 15th century was cultivated and promoted by writers such as Reginald Peacock, Sir John Fortescue, William Caxton, John Fisher and alike.

The Elizabethan Age has well been called as a young age. It was full of boundless vigor, reawakened intellectual esteem and soaring imagination. The best of the age is found in drama and next in poetry. As prose, unlike verse, does not admit any substantial restriction hence Elizabethan prose developed substantially. For the first time prose had risen to a position of first-rate importance.

During the 15th century, Latin dominated as the medium of expression but English came to its own in the 16th century. The early Elizabethan use of prose was rich, gaudy and overflowing. It was far from the commonly accepted principle of simplicity as it was colorful, blazing, rhythmic, indirect and polished.

The sixteenth-century prose can be categorized into two periods: a) prose writings before 1579 and b) prose during the latter half of the 16th century. During the early years, Sixteenth-Century Prose was cultivated by Elyot, Cavendish, Cheke, Willson, and Ascham. English prose up to 1579 did not show any marked progress and after this date, it registered a rapid growth and improvement. The later 16th-century prose took its various forms such as Prose romances, Pamphlets, Translations, Critical prose, Sermons, Dramatic prose, Character writing, Essays, etc. During the latter half of the 16th century, several prose romances were produced.

Elizabethan pamphleteering is refreshingly boyish and alive. It is usually keenly satirical, and in style, it is unformed and uncouth. The most notable among the pamphleteers were Thomas Nashe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Lodge. Sermon writings rose to a level of literary importance in this period. Donne was the most notable and his sermons contain his finest prose work. The zeal for learning and spirit of adventure, which was prominent features of the early Elizabethan age, were strongly apparent in the frequent translations.

Beginning in the pamphlets, character sketches, and other miscellaneous writings English essays developed in the works of Bacon. In him, we have the miscellany of theme and the brevity and the musings of the philosopher.

The development of English prose in the 17th century can be divided into two periods: 1) prose in the age of Milton 2) prose during Restoration. During the mid-seventeenth century or rather the Age of Milton, the development of prose carried on from the previous age. In spite of the hampering effects of the civil strife, the prose output was sophisticated and excellent in kind. The prose of this age was cultivated in a style very different from the Elizabethan and sixteenth-century prose. Very importantly, the seventeenth century is the first great period of modern English prose when it was forming under the classical influence but independent of the French impact. The prose of this age possesses a strongly religious or theological and philosophical character. The important prose writers of this period are Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Browne, Jeremy Taylor, Thomas Fuller, Jack Walton, and John Milton.

Except for the works of Dryden and Bunyan, the prose work of the Restoration times is of little moment. Dryden’s prose is almost entirely devoted to literary criticism and Bunyan’s contribution shows a remarkable development of the prose allegory. The remainder of the prose writers dealt with political, historical, theological and other miscellaneous subjects.

The 18th Century was doubtlessly an age of great prose. Matthew Arnold called it a century of prose and suggested that even the poetry of the period was prosaic or versified prose. The period had only one great poet Alexander Pope while it produced prose writers of very high quality like Addison, Steele, Swift, Defoe, and Johnson.

The aim of Steele’s essays was didactic. His essays on children are charming and are full of human sympathy. Joseph Addison was famous for drama, poetry, and essays. But it is almost entirely as an essayist that he is justly famed. Together with Steele, he protected the periodical essay in The Tatler and The Spectator. Addison wrote four hundred essays in all, which are of a wide variety of subjects. Addison’s humor is of a rare order. It is delicately ironical, gentlemanly, tolerant and urbane.

Jonathan Swift was another writer who made new experiments in prose writings. His Gulliver’s TravelsThe Tale of a Tub and The Battle of Books are powerful satires written in prose. He is the greatest satirist and unlike Pope, he restricts himself to general rather than personal attacks.

In addition to these, other prose writers of the period were John Arbuthnot, Lord Bolingbroke, George Berkeley, and Earl of Shaftsbury. The most outstanding feature of the prose of this era is the development of the middle style of which one of the chief exponents was Addison. The plainer style was practiced by Swift and Defoe. The prose of this period had many men and many manners.

Poetry dominated the literary scene of the first half of the 19th century, more popularly known as the Romantic period. Due to the presence of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, and Keats, the literary limelight was focused on poetry. Jane Austen and Walter Scott were the prominent names in novel. Hence prose was at the third rank in the stature of literary popularity. However, the prose of this period was no mean genre and we have essayists like Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt enlarging the horizon of English literature through their contributions.

With all its immense production, the Victorian age produced poets like Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold; novelists like Dickens, Thackeray and Eliot. It revealed no supreme writer like Shakespeare but the general literary level was very high and it was an age of spacious intellectual horizon, a noble endeavor, and bright aspirations.

During the Victorian age, the novel had thrust itself into the first rank with Dickens, Thackeray, and Eliot. Short story developed as a new species. Essays had expanded like a giant literary type with Macaulay, Carlyle, Pater, Ruskin and many others. Of the minor essayists Dickens in his The Uncommercial expressed his brilliant skill.

Any list of Victorian prose stylists will be incomplete without mentioning the name of Matthew Arnold. Arnold was a man of many activities but now he holds his rank as a poet and a literary critic. His prose works are large in bulk and wide in range. His critical essays are ranked of the highest value. He wrote freely upon theological and political themes also. Two of his best books of this class are Culture and Anarchy and Literature and Dogma. His style is perfectly lucid, easy, elegant, distinct and rhythmical.

English poetry has a long and distinguished history. Poets began writing in Old English as early as the seventh century, but the most famous Old English poem, Beowulf, has been dated to the eighth century. Beowulf is an example of a heroic epic. There were other heroic epics written at this time, but only parts of them have survived. Poetry from this time very rarely rhymed but often used alliteration. Many poets were writing in English during the Middle Ages. Poetry from this time was often religious or romantic in nature. “Piers Plowman”, a poem written by William Langland, is an allegory about the search for religious life. Perhaps the most famous poet from this period is Geoffrey Chaucer, whose collection of poetic stories, The Canterbury Tales, is still taught to children in schools.

After the Renaissance, English poets began experimenting with new styles of writing. The poet Thomas Wyatt wrote sonnets, an Italian style of poetry in which each poem consists of fourteen rhyming lines. Other poets, such as Thomas Campion, wrote songs in which their poetry was set to music. Edmund Spenser returned to the old, heroic style when he wrote The Faerie Queen, a long poem dealing with the adventures of several questing knights. John Donne, who is considered one of the Metaphysical Poets, wrote intelligent poetry in which themes such as love and death were explored through metaphors.

At the end of the eighteenth century, English poetry went through a Golden Age. Many poets from this time belonged to the Romantic Movement, in which creative expression was given absolute importance. Lord Byron was a poet and adventurer and wrote masterpieces such as Don Juan and Childe Harold’s. John Keats wrote some of the most beautiful love poems in the English language and died when he was only twenty-five. Samuel Taylor Coleridge suffered from poor health and depression, and was addicted to opium, but wrote astonishingly complex and captivating poems such as the famous Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote poetry influenced by classical mythology and was an early advocate of pacifism and vegetarianism.

After the Romantic poets came the Victorian poets and the Pre-Raphaelites. Alfred, Lord Tennyson was the “Poet Laureate” of England for many years and wrote lyrical poems characterized by the perfect and precise use of the English language. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote religious poetry with a modern bent. William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet whose poems were full of symbolism as well as beautiful imagery. The appeal of poetry is universal. Epic poems such as Beowulf and The Faerie Queen are probably not a good place to start, but poems by the Romantic and Victorian poets are often simple and easy to understand, while still being examples of beautiful and refined English.

With the transcendence of time, modern day prose and its styling also evolved – preferably to gain a better understanding of the true history of English literature. Prose and its modern concept soon came to be about its antiquity something which would be a complement of verses. The lack of metre, the bareness of the words deemed it a kind of “oral residue”– from the perspective of Walter Ong. For it is evident that oration capacitated the Zenith in the hierarchy of prose. It is also widely accepted that modern day standard prose came to be from the evolution of the style during the Restoration Era in the 17th century. Robert Adolph proposed a new theory as to how modern English prose embodied the “close, naked, natural” style, and justifies by saying that the drastic stylistics shift was the result of a utilitarian ethic wrapped around which numerous customs of the age were incorporated.

To categorize prose, particularly the American literature version of it, can be said to be divided into three distinct parts – calculated data of psychology, the ugly, emotional falsehood and social propaganda. In all unity, prose is, quite fundamentally, a project of the ethics. We do not see very many significant difference in the styling of prose from Modern Times until post modern times, yet such works do exist in minimal. Some of the examples of modern prose that are quite popular areThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Harry Potter series written by J. K. Rowling, and the famous Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro are prevalent to name a few.

A rather radical genre that is quite curious in nature is the prose poetry, which is a poem written in prose form instead of the versed poetry form. It manages to retain its poetic qualities and at the same time, reserves the magical balance between these two conflicting genres magnificently. The famous modernist poet T. S. Eliot would constantly write and practice different forms of prose poetry. Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson would also write prose poetry frequently. This signifies how strongly a hybrid genre in modern and postmodern times create a strong impact on the literature world. Thus, it also allows one to not think in a conflicting manner regarding prose or poetry, but appreciate the beauty and creativity of both the styles.

Poetry in the modern times however, flourished thanks to the rise of the imagists. Their combined attempt to counter the Victorian poetry was simply astounding. Ranging from putting emphasis on diction, classic Formalism, and following freestyling, the modernist poetic movement brought out and refined the best qualities of poetry from the eras that came before. The common form used was the implementation of very small and precise lyrics. Several literary devices were also invented simultaneously along with the rediscovery of poetry and its formation which includes imagism, cubism, abstract, et cetera, brought into life by the exercise of free verse very frequently. The widely renowned and legendary poem “The Wasteland” by T. S. Eliot is the most iconic poem which paved and defined the path of modernist poetry, and ultimately, postmodern poetry. Other famous poets like Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, William Butler Yeats and W.H. Auden would make their own individual contribution to modern poetry through their own unique signature styling. “In a Station of the Metro”, “The Red Wheel Barrow”, “The Cantos” are a few of such groundbreaking poetry.

As for postmodern times, things have gotten more chaotic and fluid in structure. As controversial as it is, the celebration of nothing containing an absolute meaning in postmodern poetry is greatly evident and has gone on to father shape the world of literature today. Pablo Saborío’s artistic poem “Delicate Illusions” showcases the spirit of postmodernism greatly. With its visual structure similar to an ascending and followed by a descending staircase, along with its internal structure which is very much similar to the exoskeleton of a construction site, gives the impression that poetry is no longer a black and white work of literature where the creativity needs to be read, but it is also a very artistic and visually appealing piece of craftsmanship worthy of re reading to simply appreciate its verse style as well. Micro poems are also numerous and widely practiced. The smaller poems are more compact and therefore the meaning and interpretations within them are richer and much deeper than any other style of writing. Grand narratives have long since been thrown out of the window as the shorter and increasingly informal styling gains popularity, mainly due to its flexibility and adaptability to blend into any concept, as well as mesh one theme seamlessly into another. John Rilye’s “The Poem as Light” tends to demonstrate just that. Leaving much room for numerous and diverse interpretations, as well as harbouring meaning that is easy to grasp by majority of the readers community.


Therefore, the differences can be clearly seen between prose and poetry to not only be by definition, but also through the different art forms and through the passage of time itself. Where prose is the genre akin to the flow of tide – which is the acquisition of the ethics of a work, poetry on the other hand, has always been the ebb of it, which is the separation of individual sentiments. The key momentum which propelled poetry to be the more dominant genre is its flexibility, transition and most importantly – its ability to augment, replicate and even create “truth” in its own accord, something which the genre of prose is very much limited to due to its lack of diversity and over simplicity through straightforwardness. But perhaps it is this meeting of forces in the literary space-time Continuum, their epic collisions and the ensuing debate which is similar to the Big Bang of God that allows for such creative ideas to take fruit, and give rise to more branches to poetry and prose both. For when unstoppable forces meet immovable objects, the resulting chaos gives birth to greater miracles – and endless momentum of knowledge to ponder and explore.