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Descriptive poetry is the poetic equivalent of a portrait or a landscape painting. It is realistic and does not delve into emotions and metaphor. Description in most poems is ornamentation, but in descriptive poetry, it becomes the center of attention. This does not mean that such poems are lacking in neither lyrical quality nor that lyrical and narrative poetry lack description.
Poetry developed out of oral traditions in cultures across the world. In time, these poems came to be written down, as did their sometimes complicated rules. Descriptive poetry, and elements of it, has been present as long as poetry has existed, but description-lead poetry grew to prominence between the 16th and 18th centuries. Descriptive English poems were inspired by French versions and early poems include Ben Johnson’s “To Penshurst” in 1616.
Aristotle’s “Poetics” was an important book early on concerning the content of a poem. He believed that poems should represent emotions and histories should represent facts and narrative. Clearly a descriptive poem goes against this notion, indicating that poems veer between description and emotion or try to balance between the two. Christopher Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander” attempted to balance the two by showing intense emotion, but also minute descriptions of things such as Hero’s costume.
One of the first, and most extensive, examples of descriptive poetry in English is “Poly-Olbion” written by Michael Drayton between 1598 and 1612. The poem covers 30 songs and around 15,000 lines of verse and is a thorough description of England and Wales. Each song covers one to three counties and covers topography, folk-culture and history. Each verse is written in Alexandrine meter, each of which has 12 syllables. The original poem was accompanied by illustrated maps by William Hole.
Descriptive poetry covers many common subjects, both natural and human. Human topics include portraits in verse, the description of garments and a person’s actions. The poem does not have to be written in admiration, but for any subjective reason. Any reason behind the descriptive poem will color the impression given in the end product.
Natural topics revolve around landscapes, architecture, objects and elements. An example of the latter is “The Seasons” by John Thomson, which is a long poem describing each of the seasons in great detail. Ben Johnson’s “To Penshurst,” meanwhile, describes landscapes on a journey, much like Drayton’s “Poly-Olbion.”
The main criticism of descriptive poetry is that it lacks intensity. This, according to critics, leaves it emotionless and dead. Such poets believe that description is ornamentation to put meat on the bones of lyrical and narrative poetry and should not dominate either.
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