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What Is Poetic License?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Poetic license occurs when a writer or poet takes liberties with the facts in order to improve their creation. Poetic license can occur in all forms of literature and poetry, however, it is considered bad form for non-fiction work, which is supposed to tell the truth. For this reason, it is most commonly found in works of fiction, but may also be found in biographies and autobiographies.

The idea of poetic license refers to a metaphorical license from a higher authority to distort the facts present in a story. It insinuates that the higher authority, being art or literature, has permitted the little lie for the sake of improving the story/poem. This term is also called artistic license, which relates only to art. In dramas and plays, this can also be called dramatic license.

Some argue that taking license with grammar can count as poetic license. This means making minor changes to what a person says or the way something is described in order to improve the flow of the story or poem. One example is Julius Caesar’s “veni, vidi, vici” or “I came, I saw and I conquered,” which William Shakespeare made more poetic by removing the grammatically correct “and.” Another example turned Rene Descartes' “I am thinking, therefore I do exist” into “I think, therefore I am.”

Poetic license can also rearrange word order. A common example of this is the movement of an adjective from before the noun to after it. For example turning “he gave her a red rose” into “he gave her a rose red.” This can be done to sound more artistic, to change the emphasis of a word or to help the rhyming pattern.

A larger form of poetic license is the changing of facts. This brings it closer to artistic and dramatic license. Rather than changing the form, the poet or writer changes the content. Some of these may be used as symbols. For example, the black rose is symbolic of death and evil, but is poetic license because they do not exist except in some laboratories.

Factual changes in poems might make minor changes to times, events and locations so the poem or story works better. Maybe a poem about New York might put landmarks closer together. A poem about a historical figure like Richard the Lionheart, might have him meeting Saladdin in person, whereas in reality, they never met.

Poetic license can be held in esteem by some and criticized by others. This depends on the work, the nature of the distortion and, quite often, politics. This is often a matter of personal opinion on the part of the reader/listener.

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