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What Is Descriptive Poetry?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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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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Discussion Comments

By pastanaga — On Apr 27, 2012

@bythewell - There are plenty of descriptive poems which are beautiful and as far from greeting card writing as can be.

Just because something is descriptive doesn't mean it can't also have a deeper meaning or be lovely for its own sake. I think people consider it to be dull because often it is undertaken as a dull exercise.

But if you were going to get students to do descriptive poetry for kids, you'd get them to describe things which are dear to them, or interesting to them. A vivid description of a cartoon, which describes not only the obvious things but the not so obvious, like the funny postures, but also the pixels and the blip in the center of the screen when the TV goes off.

Humans are always going to look for deeper meaning. If they don't, they will just see the nice description, if they do, they might see their own death in that blip.

I think descriptive poetry is just another way of getting things across. Perhaps it's too subtle for some.

By bythewell — On Apr 27, 2012

@pleonasm - Well, you do need to be able to define what poetry is or it will lose all meaning. And if someone defines poetry as being the written form of an intense emotion, or some other similar definition, then descriptive poetry has no room in that definition.

I mean there are descriptive poetry examples which seem no better than greeting card rhymes and most people wouldn't consider them to be poetry no matter how broad the definition.

If you are going to use the art example, when Duchamp decided to call a toilet bowl art, he was making an important point about what art can be.

But an equally valid point is that if you allow everything to be art, art no longer exists.

So, people should be able to define poetry, although I agree that sometimes they become too narrow about it.

By pleonasm — On Apr 26, 2012

I always find it interesting how many people think in absolutes when it comes to poetry, or even art in general.

Take this issue for example. Obviously some people love descriptive poetry and some people think it is worthless or should at the least be mixed in with other forms of poetry.

But, why can't it just exist for the people who like it? Or for the people who can see what use it has? I mean, perhaps there is a particular emotion or experience that can only really be put forth in the form of a descriptive poem and any other form of poem would not be right for it.

I don't see why people have to say absolutely that there is no room in poetry for a particular kind of writing.

Especially since there are more than enough people who think that poetry itself is worthless and that poems are for kids.

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