The poem below is an example of why formal poetry is not much read today. For reasons connected with both its virtues and its vices, this poem has not aged well: it is, for most of today’s readers, difficult to read—but if you’ve found your way to this site, you may have an advantage over most readers, and find it accessible enough. Give it a try; and then we’ll consider some of the difficulties of this poem (and style of poetry).
by Ralph Knevet
Thou bearst the bottle, I the bag (oh Lord)
Which daily I do carry on my back,
So stuffed with sin, that ready ‘tis to crack:
I have no unfeigned nectar for thy gourd,
Mine eyes will no such precious drink afford:
Yet both my heart, and eyes, are deserts dry,
Even Lybian sands, where serpents crawl and fly.
Yea the two extreme zones took up my heart,
For unto good, as cold as ice, I am:
But unto evil, like an Etna’s flame:
I paralytical seem in each part,
One utterly deprived of strength, and art,
When I should execute my master’s will,
But active am as fire, t’accomplish ill.
I bear the bag like Judas: (Lord) do Thou,
From this unwieldy burden me dismiss,
And this bag empty, which so heavy is:
Then shall my tears into thy bottle flow;
Not only tears, which do from sorrow grow,
But cooler drops, which do from joy distill,
And to the brim, these shall thy bottle fill.
Congratulations to you for making it through this poem; and bonus points if you got the imagery—which is the first difficulty here: for the primary image is no longer familiar to people today. “The Bottle” refers to a Lachrymatory, or tear-bottle, which captures and holds the tears of a mourner. Yes, these things did exist (in fact they still do), and would have been known to the original audience of this poem (though perhaps better-known in ancient times). And even if the reader had not ever used or seen a tear-bottle, they were expected to know the Biblical reference:
“Thou tellest my wanderings, put thou my tears in Thy bottle; are they not in Thy Book?” –Psalm 56:8
So the poet, whose original readers were familiar with both Biblical and classical imagery, would have easily discerned what the poet is saying: the Lord counts my every tear, but alas! I fail to mourn my sin; therefore deliver me from sin, o Lord, and I will both weep for my sin and cry for joy at my deliverance! Now today’s readers, unfamiliar with the Lachrymatory, can still pick this up (for the poet is not opaque); but it is with greater difficulty.
Speaking of original versus modern readers, the two groups tend to have much different tastes in subject matter. In Knevet’s time, religious poetry like this was more popular, for the religious community and the literary community had significantly more overlap than today; and in the last century, the dominant literary institutions have rather discouraged such themes (or at least, have been more given to praise other themes).
But the biggest problem with this poem is actually the syntax: Knevet’s word order is so far from natural speech it makes some of the lines rather difficult (and unpleasant) to read. Even granting that poetic diction allows for greater freedom in word order, Knevet has gone rather beyond the boundaries. His rearrangement of subjects, verbs, objects, and clauses may serve his rhyme, but they fail to serve his meaning (or clarity).
Now this is probably a greater poetic vice today than in Knevet’s time: for just as readers were once more familiar with classical imagery, so also were they once more familiar with classical languages—and in Greek and Latin, word order is much less strict than in English. Readers who were familiar with the freedom of word order in those languages may well have has a higher tolerance for such contravention of English syntax. But as poetic readership moved away from those languages, this tolerance fell; and by the beginning of the free verse era, such tortured word order was one of the significant reasons formal poetry was rejected.
Consider just that last stanza again, compared to natural syntax:
I bear the bag like Judas: (Lord) do Thou,
From this unwieldy burden me dismiss, Dismiss this unwieldy burden,
And this bag empty, which so heavy is: And empty this heavy bag,
Then shall my tears into thy bottle flow; Then my tears shall fill your bottle—
Not only tears, which do from sorrow grow, Not only tears of sadness,
But cooler drops, which do from joy distill, But also tears of joy—
And to the brim, these shall thy bottle fill. These shall fill your bottle to the brim.
Of course the natural syntax is not in meter. The challenge for a formal poet today would be to take the text on the right and re-work it into something metrical that is no less natural, so that it is readable as opposed to decipherable, and so that it can be spoken aloud and understood without having to be carefully repeated two or three times. But if a poet today wrote the text on the left, I would be rather inclined to call it bad poetry—at the very least, I’d have to say that the poet was writing for a very small audience (or for a dead one).
I still like this poem, by the way; for a poem does not have to be faultless to be enjoyable. But the faults ought to be recognized, so that we when we write, we do not make the mistake of throwing out the baby (poetic meter) with the bathwater (tortured syntax).