That the perusal of long, narrative poems is too rare in this day and age is a complaint likely to have been with us since the days of Homer. Nonetheless, the writing and reading of such works is more common in the mythic arts than in most quarters. Therefore, it behooves us to consider best practices regarding such works.
In a similar vein to what someone once said of Richard Crashaw, I would assert that of all the everlasting long, narrative poems in English Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market is undoubtedly the worst. However, this makes it unusually well-suited as a way of looking at what is truly necessary in a long poem. The initial assertion that a combination of narrative ability and poetic aptitude is shipwrecked on the rocks of Goblin Market—after all, to suggest that Rossetti is a better in either category than E. A. Robinson is patently ludicrous, and yet, she is the one with the immortal long poem, and Robinson’s many book-length poems gather the dust of ages—deservedly, in many cases. The point is that Goblin Market’s status as the least in the Kingdom affords us an opportunity to see what is necessary. What qualities does Goblin Market have that allows it to endure when long, narrative poems by better poets rot? Let us consider five below.
1. A distinct aesthetic to the verse. Now, this is different from quality. I mean, who would maintain that
Curious Laura chose to linger
Wondering at each merchant man.
One had a cat’s face,
One whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat’s pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry.
Is scintillating verse? Yet, Goblin Market’s endless listing and sing-song tone is a distinctive, if not a brilliant, aesthetic. This is why it is necessary that we read one of Frost’s blank-verse poems e.g. The Witch of Coös, Home Burial, Two Tramps in Mudtime, or The Death of the Hired Man but it doesn’t really matter which one, and none are truly indispensable. Each doesn’t have a truly distinct aesthetic.
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
Coleridge’s message has not aged well—my students have always been quick to disparage the poem’s cheesy environmentalism. The better works have a theme that is ineffable but uniquely present. Now, you may be thinking, “Okay, Dr. Richards, now you’ve gone too far. What about The Waste Land? I know it’s not narrative, but, surely, it has no such strong, unified thematic thrust.” Ah, but that’s where you would be wrong. Consider the epigraph from Heart of Darkness that Pound removed—one of the few disservices he did to the poem.
Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision — he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
“‘The horror! The horror!’
A long poem need not have a moral, but it must have a substantial unity of action and direction. It must express one thing well, be it explicit or ineffable. What happens when a long, narrative poem fails to have this strong, unified thematic thrust? The result is what James once said of Tolstoy’s novels: “large, loose, baggy monsters”—to hear such from Henry James! It would be pistols at dawn in a more civilized era… That aside, when great poets violate this dictum, we get poems which are excerpted and quoted but rarely read. Far more people know the lines
Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong,
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.
Than have ever read Julian and Maddalo, even among the very literate.
3. A simple, direct narrative with a small cast. This may go without being said but what goes without being said often goes without being done. Even among poets with genuine narrative ability, even a shred of character development is difficult in a poem, and managing to convey a convoluted plot is difficult even in the confines of a novel much less a poem. Even Milton’s Paradise Lost has a relatively small cast for such a long work. This is simply a result of the small word-count allowed long poems. The Waste Land, for example, is approximately 3000 words; there is simply no room for a large cast and a complicated plot if any poetry is going to get done at all. Goblin Market has only the two sisters, the collective goblin men, and a girl mentioned as a warning. Writers of long poems would do well to remember this.
4. An acceptable quality-to-length ratio. If it is going to be as long as Paradise Lost, it’d better be nearly that good. In these degenerate days, even the most good-natured reader will not feel their time justified by a very lengthy work that does not deliver a corresponding amount of gaudium utilitatemque. Here you may say, “Dr. Richards, what about Goblin Market? The thing is like 600 lines long, and it’s not really very good.” Goblin Market, though, is almost entirely in very short lines, and neither it does not tax the reader. Let us make a comparison:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
All ripe together
In summer weather,—
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Are we really going to assert that these are of the same weight? Now, this is demagoguery, I know, but the point stands. I mean, how many people have read The City of Dreadful Night? It meets all of the other criteria, yet it is largely forgotten, and this last one is why. Writers in earlier ages were perhaps more guilty of this than today. While Wordsworth’s Prelude is an obvious example, I would rather note many of Browning’s longer monologues as examples of violating this—after all, Wordsworth has the problem of being boring as hell in fifty, much less thousands of lines.
5. Eschew naturalistic realism. There are exceptions to this, like Frost, but, for the most part, most long poems are not Ibsen plays or Flaubert novels. There is an element of the fantastic in there somewhere in most long poems. Whatever the reason I can think of few English examples of long poems—we can hardly admit Eugene Onegin—about the everyday; people who want that read novels. This particular criterion explains the prevalence of such poems in the mythic arts.
Now, a great long poem would surely need more than this—yet, if a poem falls short of Goblin Market’s flight in any of these categories, it bodes ill for the work at hand. Rossetti’s poem, like a coal-mine canary, tells us when we should be wary of catastrophe.
Now, you may say, “Dr. Richards, I don’t care; I’m going to write a novel-in-verse, in heroic couplets, with a cast to rival a shōnen manga in size and a plot that would require a troop of Talmudic scholars to unravel about everyday life in a small town in Michigan”—by all means, go ahead. Pull it off, and I will be the first to set the laurel crown upon your head, and I will let you use me as an ottoman when you sit next to Milton among the Everlasting.