Scope and approach
‘And Question five is, God help us, what is my definition of Poetry?’ So Dylan Thomas wrote in 1951 in response to conundrums posed by a student. Among his answers is a reminder of ‘the mystery of having been moved by words’, a ‘mystery’, not a mystification, to which subsequent pages in this volume bear witness, and which coexists with poetry’s ability to provide greater clarification of the human condition. The poet, writes Yeats, ‘is part of his own phantasmagoria and we adore him because nature has grown intelligible, and by so doing a part of our creative power’. The phrasing here may be consciously on its stilts, its affirmations unashamedly ready to disconcert, even to embarrass, but Yeats comes close to smoking out the essence of the hold possessed by poets over their readers.
The poets discussed in this Cambridge History of English Poetry often exercise ways of making ‘nature … intelligible’ that add to their readers’ sense of ‘creative power’. Milton using word-play, paradox and affecting rhythmic intensity to overcome mortality in Lycidas as he describes his drowned fellow poet as having ‘sunk low, but mounted high, / Through the dear might of him that walked the waves’ (lines 172–3); Coleridge making personification a means of mesmerically conveying tragic futility at the close of the reversed sonnet ‘Work without Hope’; Ted Hughes inventively exploiting rhyme and line-endings to evoke how ‘a black- / Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly’ in ‘Wind’ (lines 15–16): the three examples give a taste of how English poetry embodies and irradiates ‘creative power’.