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History and Form of Didactic Poetry

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

DIDACTIC POETRY, that form of verse the aim of which is, less to excite the hearer by passion or move him by pathos, than to instruct his mind and improve his morals. The Greek word διδακτικ?ς signifies a teacher, from the verb διδ?σκειν, and poetry of the class under discussion approaches us with the arts and graces of a schoolmaster. At no time was it found convenient to combine lyrical verse with instruction, and therefore from the beginning of literature the didactic poets have chosen a form approaching the epical. Modern criticism, which discourages the epic, and is increasingly anxious to limit the word “poetry” to lyric, is inclined to exclude the term “didactic poetry” from our nomenclature, as a phrase absurd in itself. It is indeed more than probable that didactic verse is hopelessly obsolete. Definite information is now to be found in a thousand shapes, directly and boldly presented in clear and technical prose. No farmer, however elegant, will, any longer choose to study agriculture in hexameters, or even in Tusser’s shambling metre. The sciences and the professions will not waste their time on methods of instruction which must, from their very nature, be artless, inexact and vague. But in the morning of the world, those who taught with authority might well believe that verse was the proper, nay, the only serious vehicle of their instruction. What they knew was extremely limited, and in its nature it was simple and straightforward; it had little technical subtlety; it constantly lapsed into the fabulous and the conjectural. Not only could what early sages knew, or guessed, about astronomy and medicine and geography be conveniently put into rolling verse, but, in the absence of all written books, this was the easiest way in which information could be made attractive to the ear and be retained by the memory.

In the prehistoric dawn of Greek civilization there appear to have been three classes of poetry, to which the literature of Europe looks back as to its triple fountain-head. There were romantic epics, dealing with the adventures of gods and heroes; these Homer represents. There were mystic chants and religious odes, purely lyrical in character, of which the best Orphic Hymns must have been the type. And lastly there was a great body of verse occupied entirely with increasing the knowledge of citizens in useful branches of art and observation; these were the beginnings of didactic poetry, and we class them together under the dim name of Hesiod. It is impossible to date these earliest didactic poems, which nevertheless set the fashion of form which has been preserved ever since. The Works and Days, which passes as the direct masterpiece of Hesiod (q.v.), is the type of all the poetry which has had education as its aim. Hesiod is supposed to have been a tiller of the ground in a Boeotian village, who determined to enrich his neighbours’ minds by putting his own ripe stores of useful information into sonorous metre. Historically examined, the legend of Hesiod becomes a shadow, but the substance of the poems attributed to him remains. The genuine parts of the Works and Days, which Professor Gilbert Murray has called “a slow, lowly, simple poem,” deal with rules for agriculture. The Theogony is an annotated catalogue of the gods. Other poems attributed to Hesiod, but now lost, were on astronomy, on auguries by birds, on the character of the physical world; still others seem to have been genealogies of famous women. All this mass of Boeotian verse was composed for educational purposes, in an age when even preposterous information was better than no knowledge at all. In slightly later times, as the Greek nation became better supplied with intellectual appliances, the stream of didactic poetry flowed more and more closely in one, and that a theological, channel. The great poem of Parmenides On Nature and those of Empedocles exist only in fragments, but enough remains to show that these poets carried on the didactic method in mythology. Cleostratus of Tenedos wrote an astronomical poem in the 6th century, and Periander a medical one in the 4th, but didactic poetry did not flourish again in Greece until the 3rd century, when Aratus, in the Alexandrian age, wrote his famous Phenomena, a poem about things seen in the heavens. Other later Greek didactic poets were Nicander, and perhaps Euphorion.

It was from the hands of these Alexandrian writers that the genius of didactic poetry passed over to Rome, since, although it is possible that some of the lost works of the early republic, and in particular those of Ennius, may have possessed an educational character, the first and by far the greatest didactic Latin poet known to us is Lucretius. A highly finished translation by Cicero into Latin hexameters of the principal works of Aratus is believed to have drawn the attention of Lucretius to this school of Greek poetry, and it was not without reference to the Greeks, although in a more archaic and far purer taste, that he composed, in the 1st century before Christ, his magnificent De rerum natura. By universal consent, this is the noblest didactic poem in the literature of the world. It was intended to instruct mankind in the interpretation and in the working of the system of philosophy revealed by Epicurus, which at that time was exciting the sympathetic attention of all classes of Roman society. What gave the poem of Lucretius its extraordinary interest, and what has prolonged and even increased its vitality, was the imaginative and illustrative insight of the author, piercing and lighting up the recesses of human experience. On a lower intellectual level, but of a still greater technical excellence, was the Georgicsof Virgil, a poem on the processes of agriculture, published about 30 b.c. The brilliant execution of this famous work has justly made it the type and unapproachable standard of all poetry which desires to impart useful information in the guise of exquisite literature. Himself once a farmer on the banks of the Mincio, Virgil, at the apex of his genius, set himself in his Campanian villa to recall whatever had been essential in the agricultural life of his boyish home, and the result, in spite of the ardours of the subject, was what J. W. Mackail has called “the most splendid literary production of the Empire.” In the rest of surviving Latin didactic poetry, the influence and the imitation of Virgil and Lucretius are manifest. Manilius, turning again to Alexandria, produced a fine Astronomica towards the close of the reign of Augustus. Columella, regretting that Virgil had omitted to sing of gardens, composed a smooth poem on horticulture. Natural philosophy inspired Lucilius junior, of whom a didactic poem on Etna survives. Long afterwards, under Diocletian, a poet of Carthage, Nemesianus, wrote in the manner of Virgil the Cynegetica, a poem on hunting with dogs, which has had numerous imitations in later European literatures. These are the most important specimens of didactic poetry which ancient Rome has handed down to us.

In Anglo-Saxon and early English poetic literature, and especially in the religious part of it, an element of didacticism is not to be overlooked. But it would be difficult to say that anything of importance was written in verse with the sole purpose of imparting information, until we reach the 16th century. Some of the later medieval allegories are didactic or nothing. The first poem, however, which we can in any reasonable way compare with the classic works of which we have been speaking is the Hundreth Pointes of Good Husbandrie, published in 1557 by Thomas Tusser; these humble Georgics aimed at a practical description of the whole art of English farming. Throughout the early part of the 17th century, when our national poetry was in its most vivid and brilliant condition, the last thing a poet thought of doing was the setting down of scientific facts in rhyme. We come across, however, one or two writers who were as didactic as the age would permit them to be, Samuel Daniel with his philosophy, Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke with his “treatises” of war and monarchy. After the Restoration, as the lyrical element rapidly died out of English poetry, there was more and more room left for educational rhetoric in verse. The poems about prosody, founded upon Horace, and signed by John Sheffield, 3rd earl of Mulgrave (1648-1721), and Lord Roscommon, were among the earliest purely didactic verse-studies in English. John Philips deserves a certain pre-eminence, as his poem called Cyder, in 1706, set the fashion which lasted all down the 18th century, of writing precisely in verse about definite branches of industry or employment. None of the greater poets of the age of Anne quite succumbed to the practice, but there is a very distinct flavour of the purely didactic about a great deal of the verse of Pope and Gay. In such productions as Gilbert West’s (1703-1756) Education, Dyer’s Fleece, and Somerville’s Chase, we see technical information put forward as the central aim of the poet. Instead of a passionate pleasure, or at least an uplifted enthusiasm, being the poet’s object, he frankly admits that, first and foremost, he has some facts about wool or dogs or schoolmasters which he wishes to bring home to his readers, and that, secondly, he consents to use verse, as brilliantly as he can, for the purpose of gilding the pill and attracting an unwilling attention. As we descend the 18th century, these works become more and more numerous, and more dry, especially when opposed by the descriptive and rural poets of the school of Thomson, the poet of The Seasons. But Thomson himself wrote a huge poem of Liberty(1732), for which we have no name if we must not call it didactic. Even Gray began, though he failed to finish, a work of this class, on The Alliance of Education and Government. These poems were discredited by the publication of The Sugar-Cane (1764), a long verse-treatise about the cultivation of sugar by negroes in the West Indies, by James Grainger (1721-1766), but, though liable to ridicule, such versified treatises continued to appear. Whether so great a writer as Cowper is to be counted among the didactic poets is a question on which readers of The Task may be divided; this poem belongs rather to the class of descriptive poetry, but a strong didactic tendency is visible in parts of it. Perhaps the latest frankly educational poem which enjoyed a great popularity was The Course of Time by Robert Pollok (1798-1827), in which a system of Calvinistic divinity is laid down with severity and in the pomp of blank verse. This kind of literature had already been exposed, and discouraged, by the teaching of Wordsworth, who had insisted on the imperative necessity of charging all poetry with imagination and passion. Oddly enough, The Excursion of Wordsworth himself is perhaps the most didactic poem of the 19th century, but it must be acknowledged that his influence, in this direction, was saner than his practice. Since the days of Coleridge and Shelley it has been almost impossible to conceive a poet of any value composing in verse a work written with the purpose of inculcating useful information.

The history of didactic poetry in France repeats, in great measure, but in drearier language, that of England. Boileau, like Pope, but with a more definite purpose as a teacher, offered instruction in his Art poétique and in his Epistles. But his doctrine was always literary, not purely educational. At the beginning of the 18th century, the younger Racine (1692-1763) wrote sermons in verse, and at the close of it the Abbé Delille (1738-1813) tried to imitate Virgil in poems about horticulture. Between these two there lies a vast mass of verse written for the indulgence of intellect rather than at the dictates of the heart; wherever this aims at increasing knowledge, it at once becomes basely and flatly didactic. There is nothing in French literature of the transitional class that deserves mention beside The Task or The Excursion.

During the century which preceded the Romantic revival of poetry in Germany, didactic verse was cultivated in that country on the lines of imitation of the French, but with a greater dryness and on a lower level of utility. Modern German literature began with Martin Opitz (1597-1639) and the Silesian School, who were in their essence rhetorical and educational, and who gave their tone to German verse. Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777) brought a very considerable intellectual force to bear on his huge poems, The Origin of Evil, which was theological, and The Alps (1729), botanical and topographical. Johann Peter Uz (1720-1796) wrote a Theodicée, which was very popular, and not without dignity. Johann Jacob Dusch (1725-1787) undertook to put The Sciences into the eight books of a great didactic poem. Tiedge (1752-1840) was the last of the school; in a once-famous Urania, he sang of God and Immortality and Liberty. These German pieces were the most unswervingly didactic that any modern European literature has produced. There was hardly the pretence of introducing into them descriptions of natural beauty, as the English poets did, or of grace and wit like the French. The German poets simply poured into a lumbering mould of verse as much solid information and direct instruction as the form would hold.

Didactic poetry has, in modern times, been antipathetic to the spirit of the Latin peoples, and neither Italian nor Spanish literature has produced a really notable work in this class. An examination of the poems, ancient and modern, which have been mentioned above, will show that from primitive times there have been two classes of poetic work to which the epithet didactic has been given. It is desirable to distinguish these a little more exactly. One is the pure instrument of teaching, the poetry which desires to impart all that it knows about the growing of cabbages or the prevention of disasters at sea, the revolution of the planets or the blessings of inoculation. This is didactic poetry proper, and this, it is almost certain, became irrevocably obsolete at the close of the 18th century. No future Virgil will give the world a second Georgics. But there is another species which it is very improbable that criticism has entirely dislodged; that is the poetry which combines, with philosophical instruction, an impetus of imaginative movement, and a certain definite cultivation of fire and beauty. In hands so noble as those of Lucretius and Goethe this species of didactic poetry has enriched the world with durable masterpieces, and, although the circle of readers which will endure scientific disquisition in the bonds of verse grows narrower and narrower, it is probable that the great poet who is also a great thinker will now and again insist on being heard. In Sully-Prudhomme France has possessed an eminent writer whose methods are directly instructive, and both La Justice (1878) and Le Bonheur (1888) are typically didactic poems. Perhaps future historians may name these as the latest of their class.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things