Poetry in the Novel

Selected Case Studies

by Adrian Kempton (Author)
©2018 Monographs XII, 314 Pages


Taking up Virginia Woolf’s provocative claim that «the best prose is that which is most full of poetry», this study examines the different ways in which novelists have incorporated poetry into the fabric of their fictions. The inclusion of poems in a novel may serve a variety of purposes: to heighten the atmosphere, to represent a character’s sensations and thoughts as «stream of consciousness», to illustrate a protagonist’s creative output, to provide an explicit or embedded literary illusion, to function as an interlude or structural divider, or to create an unclassifiable literary hybrid that highlights an author’s dual talents.
To illustrate these and other forms of integration, twenty-two works of prose fiction are analysed under five headings: textual composites that combine prose, poetry and poetic prose to achieve original effects; apprenticeship novels about the development of fictive poets and their work; fictions concerned with the investigation and appropriation of a dead poet’s opus; works in which a single long poem constitutes a novel’s principal focus; and research-based biofictions relating particular events in the lives of real poets.
Intended to stimulate reflection on the interrelations of prose and poetry, this book works against literary compartmentalization by revealing how poetry can enhance prose narrative and how the novel can bring poetry to the notice of a wider reading public.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Textual Composites
  • Chapter 1. Verse and Song: John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
  • Chapter 2. Mixed Strains: Jean Toomer’s Cane
  • Chapter 3. Soliloquies and Interludes: Virginia Woolf ’s The Waves
  • Chapter 4. Left-Handed Poems: Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
  • Chapter 5. Borderline Vignettes: Jamie Iredell’s Prose. Poems. a novel
  • Part II. Poets in the Making
  • Chapter 6. Emily St. Aubert: Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho
  • Chapter 7. Stephen Dedalus: James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Chapter 8. Yuri Zhivago: Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago
  • Chapter 9. F. X. Enderby: Anthony Burgess’s Inside Mr Enderby
  • Chapter 10. Adam Gordon: Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station
  • Part III. In Search of Lost Poets
  • Chapter 11. Mary Swann: Carol Shields’s Swann
  • Chapter 12. Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte: A. S. Byatt’s Possession
  • Chapter 13. Thomas Chatterton: Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton
  • Chapter 14. Bob McCorkle: Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake
  • Part IV. Liminal and Seminal Poems
  • Chapter 15. John Shade’s ‘Pale Fire’: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire
  • Chapter 16. Lisa Erdman’s ‘Don Giovanni’: D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel
  • Chapter 17. Paul Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’: Mary Rakow’s The Memory Room
  • Chapter 18. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’: Ron Hansen’s Exiles
  • Part V. Fictionalized Biographies
  • Chapter 19. Ann More and John Donne: Maeve Haran’s The Lady and the Poet
  • Chapter 20. Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Tracy Chevalier’s Burning Bright
  • Chapter 21. Emily Dickinson and her Journal: Jamie Fuller’s The Diary of Emily Dickinson
  • Chapter 22. Sylvia Plath and Ariel: Kate Moses’ Wintering
  • Bibliography
  • Index

← xii | 1 →


Virginia Woolf’s comment, quoted as an epigraph to this study of poetry in the novel, is taken from her essay on Montaigne. Paraphrasing what ‘that subtle, half smiling, half melancholy man with the heavy-lidded eyes and dreamy quizzical expression’ had to say about avoiding extremes, Woolf writes:

All extremes are dangerous. It is best to keep in the middle of the road, in the common ruts, however muddy. In writing, choose the common words; avoid rhapsody and eloquence – yet, it is true, poetry is delicious; the best prose is that which is most full of poetry.1

What Woolf most appreciated in Montaigne, apart from the purport and style of the Essais – so similar in many ways to her own – was, as she puts it in the opening paragraphs of her appraisal, the French writer’s consummate skill in ‘writing himself down and communicating his soul’. This he achieved, she feels, by ‘giving the whole map, weight, colour, and circumference of the soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfection’ (pp. 60–1). Taking ‘soul’ to be the equivalent of a person’s essential self, that is surely an apt description of ‘stream of consciousness’, a narrative mode first pioneered by Dorothy Richardson in the decade prior to Woolf’s essay, and adopted by both Joyce and Woolf in the 1920s as the best medium for rendering the vagaries of individual subjectivities. The former’s Ulysses (1922) and the latter’s The Waves (1931) are widely recognized examples of the application of a technique, which, even when not taken to the extremes of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, makes considerable demands on the reader.2

Part of Woolf’s reaction to the use of outworn traditional narrative techniques in the novel was to introduce what can best be described as poetic elements – rhythm, imagery, recurrent phrases, the sounds of words, density of expression – as vehicles for conveying what she considered to be the essential reality: that of human consciousness, as opposed to the external reality depicted through novelistic realism. The example of The Waves in ← 1 | 2 → particular, but also that of her more accessible earlier experimental novels, Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), demonstrate to what extent poetry can transform and enhance the writing of prose fiction – or, for those who prefer novels to be prosaic, obfuscate it.

The choice here of the term ‘prosaic’ is intended to draw attention to its ambivalence. Although its primary meaning is, according to the OED, the neutral one of ‘having the style or diction of prose’, it is its derived secondary and pejorative meaning of ‘commonplace, unromantic’ that is more generally to be found both in customary parlance and in literary criticism. To call a literary work, or indeed any work of art, ‘prosaic’ debases it, while to say it is ‘poetic’ serves to augment its worth. Unless qualified, though, ‘poetic’, while indisputably positive, is extremely vague as an evaluative term, and may, depending on the context, mean simply ‘finely written’, ‘moving’, ‘impressionistic’, or ‘romantic’.3

While both ‘poetic’ and ‘prosaic’ are of little use as viable critical terms, definitions of what constitutes and distinguishes either ‘poetry’ or ‘prose’ have long formed part of critical theory, dating back, at least in English Literature, to one of the first major works of literary criticism, The Defence of Poesy (1595), in which Sir Philip Sidney – equally renowned as a writer of poetry and of prose fiction – distinguished poetry from verse: ‘It is not rhyming and versing that maketh poesy. One may be a poet without versing, and a versifier without poetry.’4

‘Verse’, from the Latin versus (‘a line’) and vertere (‘to turn’), is in the literal sense employed to describe versification – otherwise known, somewhat confusingly, as ‘prosody’ – that is to say the metrical schemes and stanza patterns of poetry, whether in the form of rhyming, blank or free verse. It can also be used synonymously with ‘poetry’, notably in titles: ‘The Collected Verse of X’ or ‘Eighteenth-Century Pastoral Verse’. However, because the word, used as either a mass or count noun,5 refers to technique and form in poetry, it is often applied disparagingly to poetry that may be technically irreproachable but that is thought to be bland and uninspired. Hence, the dismissive terms ‘versifier’ and ‘verse-monger’ for the producers of such poetry, the product being often derided as ‘doggerel’.

On the other hand, ‘poetry’, from the Greek poieein/poiesis (‘to make’), while strictly referring either to one of the three major branches ← 2 | 3 → of imaginative literature, along with drama and prose fiction, or else to the literary production of a particular poet or group of poets (‘Selected Poetry/Poems of X’, ‘Metaphysical Poetry’), has none of the negative connotations associated with ‘verse’. Largely as a result of the Romantic aesthetic and its emphasis on inspiration and imagination in the creative process – ‘Poetry is in all its shapes the language of the imagination and the passions’ (Hazlitt)6 – ‘poetry’ has taken on much broader, even nebulous, but always laudatory, connotations (‘the poetry of life’, ‘a poetic performance’). According to this widely held view, true poets need to go beyond ‘mere verse’ if they are to produce poetry of lasting value.7

This distinction between ‘verse’ and ‘poetry’ is admirably expressed by Sándor Márai, when speaking of his attempt to write poetry during the 1944–5 siege of Budapest:

During the siege, I did strum a few lines of verse in rhyme. I am not a ‘poet’, missing from my sensibility, from my consciousness, is that distilling power which poetry is and which, with magical, sometimes demonic energy, catalyzes in a single word the elements of emotion and reason, the way that the nucleus of the atom catalyzes protons and neutrons. But occasionally I did write some rhythmic lines, and occasionally the ‘barbaric jewel’, the rhyme, clanged at the end of a line. Among them were some that looked like verse, but the dense and potentially explosive tensile power of poetry was missing. And without such a charge, there just isn’t any ‘poetry’.8

Perhaps the most damning condemnation of the craft of versification, when it lacks deeper wells of poetic inspiration, came from Matthew Arnold in applying the Romantic aesthetic to the Augustan poetry of Dryden and Pope:

It is the poetry of the builders of an age of prose and reason. Though they may write in verse, though they may in a certain sense be masters of the art of versification, Dryden and Pope are not classics of our poetry, they are classics of our prose.9

Here Arnold, although he was himself a great writer of English prose – and no mean poet either – is clearly championing the Romantic aesthetic and using ‘prose’ as a term not only to belittle the achievement of the two major Augustan satirists but also the underlying spirit of the Age of Enlightenment. ← 3 | 4 →

It is of interest to note that, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, when Pre-Romantic currents were beginning to undermine the dominantly rational philosophical outlook, we can already find the word ‘poetic’ being used as a commendatory critical term, even when applied to prose fiction. Diderot, in his Éloge de Richardson (1762), composed as a funeral tribute to the highly influential writer of a trio of epistolary novels, refers to the latter as ‘trois poèmes’ and calls on both painters and poets to look on Richardson as a model.10 Such use of ‘poetic’ or ‘poetical’ as a yardstick for measuring prose fiction reflects the Classical hierarchy of literary genres in which epic poetry reigned supreme, while prose fiction appeared somewhere near the bottom. The ranking of literary works on this generic scale continued longer in France than in England, largely through official and conservative codification endorsed by the Académie française. National distinctions still persist in the area of critical terminology. For example, ‘la poétique’ has a much broader meaning than ‘poetics’; for whereas the latter is strictly defined as the branch of literary criticism that deals with poetry, the former refers to literary stylistics as a whole.11

But what does it mean today to qualify a novel or a passage of prose (from the Latin prosa oratio, meaning ‘straightforward discourse’) as ‘poetic’? Poetic prose, in fiction or non-fiction, is prose that has all the characteristics of poetry/verse, except a regular metrical pattern; that is to say, it is characterized by figurative language (abundant use of imagery and metaphor) as well as being euphonious through effects of rhythm, repetition, assonance and alliteration. Frequently cited instances of poetic prose in non-fiction are Walter Pater’s description of the Mona Lisa in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), and, in the novel, several of Conrad’s seascapes, or the second paragraph of Dickens’s Bleak House, describing the London fog. As for whole novels being described as poetic, a good example is Eva Figes’s Light (1983), which describes a day in the life of Claude Monet at Giverny and which the New York Times Book Review described as ‘a luminous prose poem of a novel’.12 ‘Poetic’ is an epithet that has also frequently been applied to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, largely on account of the ebb and flow of its brief alternating monologues and through its stream-of-consciousness technique. ← 4 | 5 →

Virginia Woolf, a novelist possessed of an exceptional poetic sensibility, believed that the best prose is that which is most full of poetry. Paradoxically, it may also be true that the best poetry should not be too dissimilar from good prose. Certainly, this was the opinion of one of the most influential of English poets, William Wordsworth, writing in the Preface to his Lyrical Ballads (1805 edition) 120 years before Woolf. Pressing his claim that poetic diction should approximate more closely to everyday speech, or ‘the language of men’ [sic], Wordsworth wrote: ‘The language of Prose may yet be well adapted to Poetry; and I have previously asserted that a large portion of the language of every good poem can in no respect differ from that of good Prose’.13 T. S. Eliot, in his 1930 essay on Samuel Johnson’s verse, reiterated Wordsworth’s view, while at the same time challenging Arnold’s opinion of eighteenth-century verse:

Those who condemn or ignore en bloc the poetry of the eighteenth century on the ground that it is ‘prosaic’ are stumbling over an uncertainty of meaning of the word ‘prosaic’ to arrive at exactly the wrong conclusion. One does not need to examine a great deal of the inferior verse of the eighteenth century to realize that the trouble with it is that it is not prosaic enough. We are inclined to use ‘prosaic’ as meaning not only ‘like prose’, but ‘as lacking poetic beauty’. Only, we ought to distinguish between poetry which is like good prose, and poetry which is like bad prose. And even so, I believe more prose is bad because it is like bad poetry, than poetry is bad because it is like bad prose. And to have the virtues of good prose is the first and minimum requirement of good poetry.14

In correlating poetry and prose, Wordsworth and Eliot were concerned above all with style and diction. But subject matter is also of importance. Wordsworth in much of his poetry, not least in his autobiographical The Prelude, revealed that the finest poetry can be extracted from the seemingly mundane and commonplace, while Eliot did the same for aspects of reality that could be considered as sordid, seamy, or ‘unpoetic’.

Eliot’s writings on criticism, poetry and culture, beginning with The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) are among the most seminal works of twentieth-century literary criticism. They were preceded by two highly influential products of the Anglo-American school of New Criticism: I. A. Richards’s Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), in which the defining characteristic of ← 5 | 6 → poetry is either its status as an unverifiable ‘pseudo-statement’ or else its ambiguity and ability to produce multiple, complex, or even contradictory meanings.

The views of such critics – several of them poet-critics – on the distinctions and junctions between poetry and prose can be related to the broader theoretical discussions that figure large in literary critical theory of the second half of the twentieth century. A leading figure is this field has been Roman Jakobson, in particular his 1956 Fundamentals of Language and his 1960 essay ‘Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics’, in both of which he develops the notion that what distinguishes poetry is metaphorical usage, whereas prose is characterized by metonymy. Jakobson’s writings have been reference points for a number of French literary theorists, who, in the wake of Eliot’s cross-channel equivalent as poet-critic, Paul Valéry, have played a predominant role in literary critical theory during this half century. Among the most influential works are those by Roland Barthes; for example, ‘Y’a-t-il une écriture poétique?’, the fourth essay in Le degré zero de l’écriture (1953), in which he contrasts the seventeenth-century conception of poetry as a form of ornamental prose with twentieth-century views of it as a radically different mode of expression. The point is developed by Jean Cohen (Structure du langage poétique, 1966), who emphasizes the transgressive and liberating role of poetry as a deviation from the standard prose medium of communication. Challenging some of Jakobson’s ideas – and, incidentally, as a French professor who emigrated to the USA, thus indirectly bringing together both English and French currents of literary theory – Michael Riffaterre (Semiotics of Poetry, 1978) has also had a profound impact on theories about the nature of poetry. Possibly the most provocative comment about the supposed opposition between poetry and prose was formulated by Barthes, who, in ‘Critique et Vérité’ (1966), asserted: ‘Il n’y a plus ni poètes, ni romanciers : il n’y a plus qu’une écriture’15 – a point of view shared by Maurice Blanchot, who, seven years previously in Le Livre à venir, declared that literary genres need no longer be differentiated.16

However thought-provoking this corpus of literary criticism and theory may be, it is not the aim of this monograph either to review the basic definitions and assumptions or to enter into a long-standing critical ← 6 | 7 → debate about the relative merits and salient features of poetry and prose.17 As for prose fiction and poetry, while they cannot be meaningfully compared in terms of literary value or appeal – there will always be readers who prefer one to the other (or who are averse to mongrels) – what is of interest and open to analysis is where they overlap. This may be in the novelist’s use of essentially poetic features like imagery, musicality, or density. Alternatively, it may be in the poet’s adoption, particularly in a narrative poem, of novelistic features such as storyline, characterization, or dialogue. Homer’s twin epics and Byron’s verse tales are obvious instances, as are many of the verse novels written in the past thirty years.

In this study of poetry in the novel, any examination there is of what distinguishes poetry, verse, prose and prose fiction has been limited to the views of the novelists – or their protagonists – themselves. Without in any way espousing Woolf’s view that the best prose – or, more specifically, the best prose fiction (‘If we talk of prose we mean in fact prose fiction’18) – is that which contains the most poetry or is the most ‘poetic’, my overriding purpose here is to describe and evaluate the different ways in which novelists have incorporated poetry and the writing of poetry into the fabric of their fictions.19


There are several means whereby prose novelists may, for different reasons, exploit poetry in their works, the first two methods being especially noticeable, for example, in The Waves:

by resorting to ‘purple passages’ of poetic prose for descriptive scenes or to heighten the atmosphere;20

by using poetic prose, sometimes italicized, as part of a ‘stream of consciousness’ mode to represent a character’s perceptions, sensations and thoughts;


XII, 314
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (November)
poetry prose verse prose fiction narrative verse prose poem literary hybrid novelist-poet poet-novelist fictive poet pastiche poetry verse novel Künstlerroman biofiction literary hoax the interrelations of poetry and prose
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018. XII, 314 pp.

Biographical notes

Adrian Kempton (Author)

Adrian Kempton was formerly a lecturer in French, English and Comparative Literature at Queen’s University Belfast, University College Cork and the University of London Institute in Paris. He specializes in comparative eighteenth-century studies, with particular interests in epistolary writing, robinsonades, early children’s literature, salon art criticism and gardens. His publications include Survey of English Literature: From the Restoration to Pre-Romanticism, English for Science, The Mind’s Isle: Imaginary Islands in English Literature (Peter Lang, 2017) and The Epistolary Muse: Women of Letters in England and France, 1652–1802 (Peter Lang, 2017). He is also the author of the companion to this book, The Verse Novel in English: Origins, Growth and Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018).


Title: Poetry in the Novel
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
328 pages