The Systematic Study of English Poetry

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Coffeepot's picture
Joined: 2017/02/05

The following article was found in a local paper dating around 1930 and I thought I'd share as I know a lot of people post in the hopes that their poetry will improve. Have a read and hope you find something of interest in it.


The Systematic Study of English Poetry.

Lecture by the Rev Henry Todd, B.A.


The above was the title of a most interesting lecture which was delivered in the institute, Hill Street, Newry, last night under the presidency of the Rev. H. B. Swanzy, M.A., M.R.I.A. by that veritable encyclopedia of English Literature, the Rev. Henry Todd,B.A. Rector of Bessbrook.

Mr Todd, who was well received, began by saying that he had frequently spoken in Newry on different aspects of English Poetry. That night, however, he intended to fall back on his procedure as a former teacher of English Literature, and to deal with what appeared to him to be the chief branches of the study of English poetry. These he classified under ten headings each of which he treated in an illuminating manner.


Definition of Poetry.

The first thing Mr Todd emphasised was the necessity of getting what appeared to the student to be a good definition of poetry. He quoted the definitions of Macaulay, Ruskin and Dr Johnson, preferring the last mentioned, and then gave a short description from Carlyle, who characterized poetry as musical thought. Those who had despised poetry, added Mr. Todd, regarded it as ethereal rubbish.


Different kinds of poetry.

Ruskin, said Mr. Todd, limited the different kinds of poetry to three, but it was better to take a longer enumeration.  In addition to the Epic, Dramatic and Lyric, which satisfied Ruskin, he would include the Elegaic, the Ode, the Pastoral and the Sonnet, diminutive poems, ballets, translations.


Different kinds of Stanza.

These were described according to the number of lines in each and the order of the rhymes. Mr. Todd dealt with the quatrain, the rhyme royal, the Octave and the Spenserian stanza.


Noteworthy Words.

Under this heading Mr Todd dealt with words said to be coined by Edmund Spenser, such as “Bellibone”; words coined by Milton such as “Pandemonium”; Herrick’s fondness for compound words in circum and his use of “Proscenium”; Browning’s “Bloom flinders” and Tennyson’s “tip-tilted”.


Noteworthy Phrases.

Many of Mr. Todd’s illustrations under this head were taken from well-known poets, and included “Trinal triplicities”; “Compulsive course”; “Slyvan scene”; “Bickering brattle”; and “Red Ruin” about which “Birrell Blundered”.


The Single Line.

Mr Todd demonstrated that the single line has to be studied under 25 heads, viz.-

Alliterative, Ambiguous, Amended, Antithetical, Assonantal, Borrowed, Broken, Chiastic, Famous, Interrogative, Inverted, Leonine, Lexical, Ludicrous, Metaphorical, Monosyllabic, Phraseological, Playful, Pronuntial, Repetitional, Representative, Sententious, Truncated, Twelve-Syllabled, and Unstopped. Many examples of these were given, and Ruskin’s use thereof was dwelt on at some length.


Rhymed Couplets

Examples were taken from Butler, Dryden, Herrick, Addison, Burns, Gay, Garrick, Healey, and others. These included: -

What makes all doctrine plain and clear 

About two hundred pounds a year.


When all birds else do of their music fail,

Money is the still-sweet-singing Nightingale.


Here lies Nolly Goldsmith, for shortness called Noll,

Who wrote like and angel and talked liked Poor Paul.


Diminutive Poems

A diminutive poem was described by Mr. Todd as any poem not exceeding twelve lines in length. Several examples were given, especially the epitaph that Prince Frederick composed on himself, and Prior’s illness on Lubin:-

Here lies Prince Fred,

Who was alive and is dead,

Had it been his father,

I had much rather,

Had it been his brother,

Sooner than any other,

Had it been his sister,

There is no one would have missed her,

Had it been his whole generation,

Best of all for the nation,

But since ‘tis only Fred,

There is no more to be said.


On his death-bed poor Lubin lies,

His spouse is in despair,

With frequent sobs and mutual sighs,

They both express their care,

A different cause says Parson Sly,

The same effect may give;

Poor Lubin fears that he shall die,

His wife that he may live.




This Mr. Todd described as the bookish element in poets. It showed that it applied to almost every poet, Burns and Browing being taken as special examples. The quotations from Burns included:

“Time and chance are but a tide” and “Stern ruin’s ploughshare drives elate”.

From Browing- “Here the world’s wickedness seals up the sum”, the expression “To earn the Est-est”; and the word “Thalassian”




Under this, the concluding heading, Mr. Todd laid stress on the fact that the student should hold fast to the poet that appealed to him and that he could make use of, adding that in this test Shakespeare easily came first, while next ranked Pope, Burns and Cowper.

A hearty vote of thanks to Mr. Todd proposed by Mr. Hunt and seconded by Mr. Harry Kerr, concluded the proceedings.