The Art and Technique of Romantic Poetry: On Waxing Poetic with a Measured Tread

Aaron Fung
I'm not certain I would describe myself as a particularly literary person, but I do have a few poems I do like.

Byron's The Destruction of Sennacherib

Quite often, I find that there are parts of poems that just speak to me, rather than a whole, like aphorisms, with or without meaning. One particular passage that caught my attention immediately when I first read it (I think I actually read it in a George Orwell essay on God knows what) are the last two lines of Lord Byron's The Destruction of Sennacherib.

"And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!"

What at first caught me about these lines, and indeed the entire poem, is the rhythm: the entire poem is written in anapestic tetrameter, lending the poem a galloping quality such as a galloping horse. These particular lines are beautiful in the juxtaposition of the invincible Gentile and how he is defeated by a mere glance (a very little thing compared to such words as "might" and "unsmote") .

And, of course, there is that exotic quality found in the Orientalism of the nineteenth century that is kind of fun, in a strange way: all this talk of temples of Baal and Assyrian cavalry with scimitars; not the most literate or progressive reason to like a poem, I admit, but I think this is part of the appeal of much of Lord Byron, is his fascination with the East and lands that sound like fantasy (as in Byron's time only explorers, merchants and militarymen traveled much outside their little village.)
Earlier in the poem:

"For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!"

Again, there's that anapestic tetrameter, lending that galloping quality to the verse, that hurries the reader on and gives the poem an air of action and excitement; it is as though Death himself were on horseback, riding before the pillaging armies. And again, this action and excitement is juxtaposed with Death's breath, and the dead falling asleep and growing still: the rhythm of
action and adventure while the words describe stillness and death.

I suppose the rhyme scheme is okay, as it is just two couplets per stanza: aabb etc. Not the most exciting, I suppose it was supposed to allude Alexander Pope's "heroic couplets," as Lord Byron, ironically, was attracted to Pope's classicism and formalism. I think it works in this poem, though I do imagine that linking a bunch of couplets together is a difficult thing to pull of and make sound like anything but a bunch of tedious dogerrel.

Tangential Personal Anecdote

So from action, I will very badly transition to a story about this one time I was at a Buddhist retreat, growing mad with boredom; it was a little too much enlightenment for my egotistical mind. Hey, if I am to reincarnate forever until I reach enlightenment, what's the hurry? I'll save Nirvana for that grunge rock band from Seattle (I don't even like grunge. I think I'll pass on the Nirvana, this lifetime anyways).

Anyways, it didn't matter, as the theme of the retreat was darkness, and how the shadows of life are actually allies.

To paraphrase Nietzsche out of context: in order to create you must have a bit of chaos within you.

To paraphrase Voltaire: to be an artist, you must have the devil within you, and lay hold of all the powers of hell itself.

In Which I Complain About Lack of Steak and then Discuss John Keat's Ode on Meloncholy

In between vegetarian meals, and cravings for dead animal flesh, I was feeling quite bored, and quite lonely. In order to distract myself from the silence, I walked into the woods, searching for the darkest patch of wood to make my own. After nearly falling into the creek, and leaving a shiny penny at the "forest altar", I opened up a book of poetry, and was a bit stunned to find John Keat's Ode to Melancholy.
(I'm only going to quote the last stanza, as the first two require more explanation than I care to provide)

She [Melancholy] dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight 25
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung. 30

The Buddha at the "forest altar" will not be pleased; out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw him throw away my penny in disgust.

This poem is written in iambic pentameter, giving it a noble quality, the same meter as a Shakespearean noble. The rhyme scheme is abab in the first quattrain. However, the next sextet is a bit strange, because in the other two stanzas the sextet's rhyme scheme is cdecde, relatively regular and predictable. By contrast, this sextet's rhyme scheme is a bit different at cdedce. I'm not certain why Keats does this, but I do have my ideas. Because this is not normal, and not predictable, Keats is breaking the pattern and, in so doing, bringing greater emphasis to this sextet, and especially the very last tercet.

So, without truly taking the necessary time to truly understand this poem, I will explain it as I see fit.
I'm not so certain that Keats is saying that Melancholy is beautiful, merely that Beauty is its sister, and bears a family resemblance. Beauty, however, must die: that is the nature of beauty: a youth's beauty is in its ephemeral quality, as youthful innocence dies in middle age (perhaps even giving way to aged cynicism). Infants are beautiful because infancy must end after a mere year.

Pleasure turns to poison when held onto for too long. I know from my own life I hold on far too long to happinesses that I ought to let go; I know I will be nostalgic for them later in the future, but I hold on beyond their time, keeping me from other things, always forcing me to the question "what if I were not afraid to let go." I have never been much of a partyer, but when I have done the whole college thing, I have found the Dionysian revelry fun, but ultimately empty, too much partying, and I get bored, dissatisfied, even frustrated, full of regret for what might have been.

Only a sensitive soul can know Melancholy's joy as "a grape burst upon his palate fine". I am not much of a wine drinker, but I do understand the metaphor.

The part about being like a hung, cloudy trophy, if I remember correctly, is a reference to the Roman tradition of hanging trophies to the gods. Only, instead of an offering, the poet is sacrificing himself to the goddess Melancholy.


This particular part reminds me of the part in the Eddas where Odin sacrifices himself to himself on Yggdrasil, hanging himself on this tree for seven days, and sacrifices his own eye to gain wisdom. There is a bit of tragedy in the sacrifice, as in either case the protagonist sacrifices himself for a transcendent wisdom, giving up sensual pleasures.

Goethe's "Prologue in the Theater" from Faust

The last piece I have is from the Goethe's Faust, his "Prologue in the Theater".

"Give us a play with such emotion!
Reach into life, it is a teeming ocean!
All live in it, not many know it well,
And where you seize it, it exerts a spell."

I have quoted this passage often; I like it a lot. To me, this particular passage is life affirming (after that depressing Ode to Melancholy). I don't know if I can explain it better much better, as I think it speaks for itself. I think (though I may be wrong) this part was written in Goethe's "Ur Faust" phase, in which he was still involved in his "Sturn und Drang" phase. This is the Goethe that is still optimistic, before the eventual forces of reaction convened at the Concert of Vienna to crush all hope of a better world. This was before Bonaparte, the son of the Revolution fell from grace and became a mere man.

In this passage, the clown promises the poet that, though he may turn back time and relive his youthful creativity, his current maturity lends him creative power enough, that rather than living in the past, the poet ought live now and live in this world, in this life.

This foreshadows Faust in the study, who had wasted his life in scholastic pursuits, and is now experiencing a midlife crisis. In a way, this is advice given to Faust, before Faust is even introduced to the audience. Through Mephistopheles, the devil, Faust is given the chance not only of regaining his youth, but of also seizing life through ceaseless action and striving (though that is a problematic interpretation beyond the scope of this post). To seize life, and in a way, to be seized by life; the genius is the one who is divinely inspired by Nature.

Deus Sive Natura.

This is living life with the hindsight that our time on this earth is limited: foresight teaches far more gently than regret when it is all too late. Everyone who has ever lived is haunted by the specter that it is too late, and that time is running out for the truly important, meaningful things in life.

Brief thought on Seneca

I think I am going off a little bit on a tangent, but I have been reading a little bit of Stoic philosophy recently, and Seneca argues that we are not cursed with too little time, but that we spend it on meaningless tasks.

Seneca advises the reader to ask an aged person how how much time she spent on the truly meaningful, how much time did she spend truly living, and the reader will find that this seemingly long lived person had not lived so long afterall.

That is all. I hope that was informative enough. Maybe one day I will actually take some time to truly study poetry a bit better.


  1. I thought you might like Prologue, by Wm Blake. I no longer remember my meters or anything like that, but Loreena McKennit is a great one for taking poetry and setting it to music (she also does the Highwayman)

  2. Again, thank you for posting!

    And thank you for the video.

    That was an interesting interpretation of Blake's poem.

    I was expecting Mckennits to sing the Prologue, and was a bit surprised when the man recites it.

    I also liked the harp in the background.

    William Blake is quite a poet!

    I remember McKennit's version of The Highwayman; it was beautiful.


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