The Consolation of Poetry

Ten Lessons on Life and Death

by David Spurr (Author)
©2021 Monographs 140 Pages


How can poetry help us live our lives? From Shakespeare’s time to the present, poets have faced the questions of love, discovery, centering, parting, forgiveness, and our common, mortal destination. They have much to say to us, and they say it well. This is a book for the general reader who seeks solace and inspiration in the words poets have left us.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Seizing the Day
  • Loving Your Neighbor
  • Forgiveness
  • Finding the Center
  • Humility
  • Discovery
  • Parting
  • Dejection
  • Self-Reliance
  • Taking Leave


“This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams, from The Collected Poems, Vol. 1, 1909–1939, copyright ©1938 by New Directions Publishing Corp. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

The Consolation of Poetry


What are poets for? Every age since that of antiquity has had a different answer to this question. For our own age no one has had a better answer than the American poet Wallace Stevens. Stevens worked for most of his life as an executive at an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. Contrary to what one might expect, this prosaic occupation may have made him especially qualified to consider the potential importance of poetry to daily life. Insurance companies deal with risk, loss, and disaster. Those who make claims on them are often in a state of crisis from which they seek relief, if only in the form of monetary compensation. The analogy may seem far-fetched, but Stevens saw poetry as a sort of insurance policy, a compensation for the kind of suffering caused not by fire or flood, but by the mere effort to live from day to day in the modern world. We are, he says, “an unhappy people in a happy world.” Apart from us human beings, the world is happy, or at least not unhappy—so it seems when the northern lights blaze in the evening sky. But with our doubts, our loneliness and mortality, how can we hope to participate in such glory? Elsewhere, Stevens says that what gives birth to the poem is the fact that “we live in a place That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves, And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.” Here it is not just the world of nature, but the world we have made that is somehow not our own, not ourselves: Stevens expresses the feeling, shared by other modern poets, of not being at home in the world. This homelessness, however, is that from which the poem springs; the poem’s beauty, in the way its meaning derives from our condition of homelessness, offers a kind of consolation. In yet another poem, Stevens says that the function of the poet is to “reconcile us to ourselves” in the language of poetry: in “dark, pacific words” and their harmonies of sound and sense. It is not just that we do not feel at home in the world; Stevens suggests that we do not even feel at home with ourselves, and in this alienation, we need some sort of reconciliation with ourselves. This, then, is what the poet promises: nothing less than a sense of harmony with ourselves and our world. To say “ourselves and our world” implies that what the poem seeks to convey is not just about the self; it is about our relation to things outside us, to all that we are not: to the objects of the world and above all to other persons. The poem helps us to an awareness of others and to the fact that they are indeed other than we are. But the poem doesn’t leave it at that, because poetry is the language of relation: it takes us out of ourselves in order to make contact with what we are not: it is William Wordsworth meeting the leech-gatherer, Walt Whitman taking in the runaway slave, Emily Dickinson imagining the condemned man. But the other—that thing which we are not—can also be a place, a ←11 | 12→thing, a common object, a memory. For Stevens it can be two pears on a green cloth; for W.B. Yeats, the memory of an island in a lake. The poem is a bridge to and a bond with the other, including the other within oneself; it is the way to life’s enlargement. It is a consolation for our mortality.

Why then is poetry, especially modern poetry, sometimes difficult? Partly for this reason, that it takes us out of ourselves, away from the familiar phrases to which we are used to reducing our experience. It also seems difficult because it is a fresh way of saying, it makes something unique out of language, something unsaid before, and therefore it can seem obscure. But there is a mystery to beauty, even in language. As E.B. White has said, “A poet utterly clear is a trifle glaring.” Poetry bears the same relation to everyday language as dance does to mere walking. Just as dance is a different movement of the body from that of walking, poetry is a different movement in language from talk about the weather. The difference between dancing and walking we see immediately and instinctively. The problem with poetry is that it is made of language, which signifies. Words have the specific function of referring to things or events, and therefore we might expect a poem to signify in the way that the weather report does. But of course the poem doesn’t have that immediately practical meaning: poetry uses language as its material, gives it the music of rhythm and sound, and places it in a new context. To “understand” poetry is to hear this music and to entertain this context, even if they are unfamiliar. When Dickinson says, “I dwell in possibility—A fairer house than prose,” she means that the poet creates not by using the familiar formulas of language but rather by exploring its hitherto unspoken possibilities.

The pages that follow draw on a wide variety of poems which can be read as offering guidance in what everyone faces every day: the question of how to live, of how to be. Each chapter brings together a series of poems in relation to a subject or a quality common to every life, such as dejection or forgiveness, in order to show the poet’s insight into the nature of that quality. In each case we find that no two poets have the same experience of that feeling, that each defines it slightly differently, and so has something different to say about it. The result is that, while we may not get at the essence of the experience, we nonetheless see it from many sides, and we gain a sense of how that experience is lived by those who know how to speak of it most aptly. This is not to suggest that poets are models of virtue in their personal lives. The biographical evidence often proves quite the opposite. But what they have to offer is imagination and testimony. The imagination of what is possible, and the testimony to life that we find in poems, help us to think about what is most important to us, and offer examples of how others have faced the obstacles life puts before us. Wordsworth says to S.T. Coleridge at the conclusion of The Prelude, “What we have loved, Others will love, and we will teach them how.”←12 | 13→

Among the sorrows of the present age are those of nervousness, distraction, speed without destination, information without meaning, and noise in every sense of the word. But poetry promises relief from these things—not as mere escape, but as a way of restoring balance to our experience in an imperfect world. I do not claim, with Percy Shelley, that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. But poets can be read as witnesses, and as counsellors in some of the things that matter most in life, for they have felt intensely and reflected deeply on what they have to say, and on how to say it in the way that most truly captures that feeling. We can learn from them in judging our own feelings and our relations with others. We can also derive solace from them. Dickinson writes, “If I can stop one heart from breaking—I shall not live in vain.”

This book is for the common reader, unencumbered by literary prejudices and academic fashions. This is the reader whose imagination every poet must touch in order to be remembered; the reader who shall ultimately decide what great poetry is. For some readers, my presentations of the poems will serve as an introduction to some of the greatest poems in English. To others they offer an alternative approach to those poems through an ethical framework. Although many of the poems are quite famous, I don’t assume the reader’s prior knowledge of them. This is one of several ways in which I choose to depart from academic orthodoxy. The poems are read not primarily as aesthetic objects or as textual systems but as the work of real people who have something to say to us about life as they know it. For this reason, I often take the risk of identifying the poem’s first-person speaker with the poet, and I consider the poet’s real circumstances and surroundings at the time of the poem’s composition. Every poem is an occasion, and whatever we can learn about the circumstances of that occasion may help us to understand why it was written and what it says. Another departure from orthodoxy is to seek to learn lessons from the poems. The poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries took seriously the claim of the Roman poet Horace that the purpose of poetry was to “delight and instruct.” More recent generations of critics have forgotten the second part of this double vocation. This book is an attempt to show how poetry might still instruct us and even console us in hard times. Even so, these cannot be lessons of the kind we learn in school, and as Whitman cautions, they cannot be learned completely. He says of his work, rather, that “it lets down the bars to a good lesson, And that to another, and every one to another still.” In other words, the poem may not convey complete understanding, but it opens up the possibility of understanding. At its best, the power of imagination that poetry puts into words allows us to see what we might be. This power, combined with poetry’s grounding in the reality of experience, makes it a source of meaning and value in the modern world.←13 | 14→


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (September)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 140 pp.

Biographical notes

David Spurr (Author)

David Spurr is emeritus professor of English at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.


Title: The Consolation of Poetry