In my 1302 ENG COMP II course this semester, I am teaching a unit on Nineteenth Century American Poetry. I originally chose this genre of literature back in the fall 2019, as I was planning my Spring semester and had no idea what was to come this year. Nineteenth Century literature, both French and English, were part of my Graduate studies and thesis and I really enjoyed my course on American poets.

When reviewing my syllabus on the first day of class, I asked how many students liked poetry-no one raised their hands. No surprise there. So, why teach poetry as an introduction to literature in a university class?

First, I believe that poetry tends to be richer, linguistically, than any other genre. It helps build vocabulary, imagery and sentence structure. The word study, prefix and suffix and etymological lessons are so important in language and especially writing.

emily dickinson

Secondly, as I have been reviewing the curriculum and preparing lectures for my class this week (which have now been transitioned to Online), I see many parallels of this time period in American History following the crisis of the Civil War and our current crisis of the Covid 19 pandemic. Through the voices of the poets Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Walt Whitman, we will study in this unit, one can hear the same sentiments of today: fear of the unknown, anxiety of an enemy; but also hope, courage, steadfastness, resiliency, faith in God, service to humankind. Poetry can bring encouragement and hope in these troubled times. From David, the Psalmist:

“The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed,/a stronghold in times of trouble./ And those who know your name put their trust in you,/ for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you. (Psalm 9:9-10)


One of the most beautiful expressions of the resiliency of the American spirit is found in the ode to Abraham Lincoln by Walt Whitman: “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, or “O Captain! My Captain”:

Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,/ For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,/ Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul, / There in the fragrant pine and the cedars dusk and dim. (“When the Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” by Whitman)

This academic exercise has just become a lesson for everyday life!

What is poetry and why is important in literature and in our lives?

To help define this purpose of studying poetry, I am using an article that was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1832 titled “The Defence of Poetry”. At this time in American history, poetry was seen as “the quintessence or luxury of all learning” and that it was injurious to the mind and heart…by exciting the feelings and misdirecting the imagination through poetry, one is unfit for the common duties of life (62). How can this be true if Homer, Dante and Milton-poets and scholars-were able to carry forward the spirit of their age through their verse and penetrate the deepest recesses of the human soul?

Longfellow also sites the inspired pages of the Hebrew prophets and the “eloquent inspirations of the Psalmist” which “the spirit of devotion bears up the soul steadily and loftily…and soars upward on the wings of devotion above the brightness of an opened heaven pouring around it (63).”

Third, poetry is an instrument for improving the condition of society and advancing the great purposes of human happiness. “Man must have his hours of meditation as well as of action.” In these troubled times of fear and unrest, according to Longfellow, the mind and body are worn down and the soul longs for the “waters of Shiloah”.  Divinity should stir within us and the soul should abstract itself from the world. Isn’t this still true today!

Life is real! Life is earnest!/ And the grave is not its goal;/ Dust thou art, to dust returnest,/ Was not spoken of the soul./ Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,/ Is our destined end or way; / But to act, that each to-morrow/ Find us farther than to-day.

(“A Psalm of Life” by Longfellow)

Longfellow observes that the origins of poetry were from the scenes of pastoral life, in the quiet repose of a golden age, when camps and courts were unknown. “Life itself was an eclogue (67).” It then progressed to announce the achievements of the Grecian and Roman heroes. In more recent times (early Nineteenth century), the purpose of poetry was to render a nation’s history (see Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” or “Evangeline”) to convey “erroneous impressions” more than a record of mere events (67):

Hiawatha, the Beloved,/ In the glory of the sunset,/ In the purple mist of evening,/ To the regions of the home-wind,/ Of the Northwest wind Keewaydin,/ To the Islands of the Blessed,/ To the kingdom of Ponemah,/ To the land of the Hereafter! (“Song of Hiawatha” by Longfellow)

Poetry is the spirit of an age in the forms of language, impulses of the mind, events, actions and the marks left by these actions. In poetry, one can exaggerate facts and characters, of course, but the spirit of that age is still recorded. Longfellow cites these examples: Nibelungen Lied of Germany; the Poema del Cid in Spain; the Songs of the Troubadours in France; and the Arcadia  in England (68).

Finally, back to my original question: Why teach poetry? In addition to my American students, I have International students from nations all around the world: China, Colombia, Peru, Vietnam, India, Korea, and Brazil. What better way to teach the rich heritage of our nation than Nineteenth-Century poetry?

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, /Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,/…Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighbouring ocean/ Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.

(“Evangeline” by Longfellow)

Who is your favorite Nineteenth-Century Poet?

Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)


Further Reading:

  • Nineteenth Century French Poet: Victor Hugo “The Art of Being a Grandfather; Lesson One, The Moon”


  • Nineteenth Century American Poet, Emma Lazarus “Venus of the Louvre”


  • Nineteenth Century American Poet: Herman Melville, “A Coming Storm”


  • Nineteenth Century Poet: Emily Dickinson “A Precious Mouldering T’is”


  • “A Bird Came Down The Walk”


  • “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers”


  • “I’m Nobody, Who Are You?”