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This article is taken from PN Review 163, Volume 31 Number 5, May - June 2005.

The Poetry of the Novel David Gervais


By poetry is meant neither fine writing nor florid description. One takes Stendhal's point that Walter Scott painted elaborate pictures of armour and historical dress when he should have been depicting the hearts inside them. Real poetry may well be plain and off-hand, averse to drawing attention to itself.

Yeats, contemplating the 'coat' of 'mythologies' that he had spun around his early verse, concluded that there was 'more credit in walking naked'. Poeticality had to be purged away to disclose the true poetry in his material. 'Embroidery', however enticing, was a distraction. Yet a poem like 'A Coat' says little more than any epigram would: the coat is merely an emblem, a piece of embroidery itself. Why should what remains when the embroidery is removed be more poetic in itself? How does absence become a kind of presence? It may be that simple austerity is no more than a kind of Puritanism, even a flouting of the muse. Why should Yeat's strategy, though more modern, be preferable to Keat's advice to Shelley to 'load every rift with ore'? Poetry may not be the same thing as poeticality but it need not follow that it should therefore be frugal and statemental. Poets as good as Milton and Tennyson gladly settled for more decorative language when it served their turn.

It might be argued at this point that what has tipped verse more in the direction Yeats advocated was the example of the novel. ...

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