What is Poetry?

A few weeks ago, I began a series on Vintage Verse and Poetics. Today I showcase William Hazlitt (1778-1830), who wasn’t exactly known for his poetics, but his definition of poetry made me smile.

What is Poetry?

“Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself. He who has a contempt for poetry cannot have much respect for himself or for anything else . . . for all that is worth remembering in life is the poetry of it. Fear is poetry, hope is poetry, love is poetry, hatred is poetry; contempt, jealousy, remorse, admiration, wonder, pity, despair, or madness are all poetry.”

The Bio Bit

File:William Hazlitt self-portrait (1802).jpg

Most poets are not just poets. They work at other jobs and are at times eclectic, divergent, unorthodox, and . . .  shall I say it? Even weird.  Even difficult.

William Hazlitt fancied himself a painter for awhile. Then a journalist in the literary arts befriending  Wordsworth, Coleridge, Charles Lamb, Hunt, and others of the Romantic School.

But, he had a bit of a temper and a wild side that landed him in trouble and destroyed friendships. Ironically, he was an essayist for young men who were bent on writing themselves. (Mind and Motive)

And that’s where he found his strength—in writing essays and literary criticism while he failed at painting and never did complete his masterpiece, a biography of Napoleon.

Even though he experienced a tumultuous life, living much of it in poverty, he wrote some thoughtful pieces.

I especially like his take on writing voice and word choice: “It is not easy to write a familiar style. Many people mistake a familiar for a vulgar style, and suppose that to write without affectation is to write at random.. . . .” (Click the link to read the entire quote.)

The O Bit.

The end of his life found him strung out on opium for pain resulting from illness. His last words were reported to have been “Well, I’ve had a happy life.” (wikipedia) Hazlett is buried in London.

William Hazlitt (1778-1830)

So, what is Poetry?

You’ve read what Hazlett thought poetry was. What is your definition? Is it more simplistic? Or more complicated? When you’ve thought it through, I’d love to read


In case you missed the last Vintage Verse:

Ben Jonson A Hymn on the Nativity of My Savior


6 thoughts on “What is Poetry?

  1. I love that quote. Thanks for sharing this. For all his failures, the things he wrestled with sound like things many artists face, throughout time, so it was an interesting read. The portrait of him has a haunting quality.

Speak to me of thoughts unspoken.

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