It is curious that nobody has yet been able to produce a satisfactory definition of poetry, though many attempts have been made. Matthew Arnold said it was “criticism of life”; but the word “criticism” itself needs defining, and even then the definition is not exclusive, because a novel or any other book in prose may be a criticism of life. Shelley, the poet, said, “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects to be as if they were not familiar”; but while this tells us something of what poetry does, it does not tell us what it is.
Poetry is often opposed to prose; and most people think that when a piece is printed in short lines and divided into verses, it must be poetry, while if it is printed in sentences and paragraphs it must be prose. But the distinction here is not between prose and poetry, but between prose and verse — which may be a very different thing. It is necessary, therefore, first to define what is meant by verse. There is no space in a short essay to do this properly; but it will be sufficient to say that in verse the accented syllables of the words come at regular intervals, while in prose the intervals are quite irregular. It is this which gives a line of verse a certain swing, or regular beat, which is called rhythm. Read any sentence in ordinary prose, and, then read these two lines of verse, exaggerating a little the emphasis on the accented syllables, and you will see what is meant.
“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea.”
If you analyses these lines, you will find there are ten syllables in each, five of which are accented and five unaccented; and that the accent falls regularly on every second syllable. In some meters the accent falls on the first of each two syllables; in others on the first of three, or the last of three. But in all cases the accented syllables. come at more or less regular intervals; and this produces poetic rhythm.
Another common characteristic of verse is rhyme (or, as it ought to be spelt, “rime”), that is the agreement in sound of the last words of lines; but this is not essential to verse, as much verse is written without rhyme.
To come back to poetry; we must learn that, while most poetry is written in verse form, there are passages of eloquent prose which are really poetry — what are sometimes called prose-poems. And, still more commonly, there is much verse that is not poetry at all. Simply to write a pike in rhythmic meter and rhyme does not necessarily make a poem. And here we come back to the impossibility of defining poetry. It is a thing that can be felt, but cannot be described or defined. A true poem is the product of sincere and deep feeling, and it touches the heart and appeals to the emotions. It is an expression in beautiful language of some experience that appeals to the human heart. A real poem will make you feel what the poet felt who wrote it, so that you will really experience what he experienced. The true poet has the power of using words so as to produce in us a sort of enchantment.