Poetry has the greater expressive value compared to other genres of literature because it touches the mind and heart directly. The sounds of rhythm and rhyming are pleasing to our ears and we get influenced and involved. Listening to or reading a poem is an act of pleasure and purgation of emotions at the same time. As Eliot confirmed poetry relieves human emotions (see article, What is Poetry?), gives us a chance to reveal the pressure confined in our mind. Let’s see how Maya Angelou (1920-2014), an American poet and author, revealed her emotions in the poem Still I Rise: 

“You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.


Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.”

This lines lead us to the experience Angelou had in her life and how she bravely fought back. The poetry has the strength to convey the message to readers. Here Angelou used simple everyday words and language to compose her emotional state of mind. Its short poem composed in quatrain, a lyric. 

There are short poems and long poems; e.g. poems in Rabindranath Tagore’s Geetanjali are short poems called lyrics whereas John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained are long poems or epic poems. Based on some distinguishing features, we have different forms or kind or types of poems:

1. Epic: it is the longest type of poem composed with exalted theme and language. Everything in epic—characters, theme, atmosphere, setting, language, narration, etc.—is presented on a grand level. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are the best examples of epics in Sanskrit; in Greek we have Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey which laid the conventions of epic poems in English like Milton’s Paradise Lost. A narrative of the deeds of great persons and Gods is weaved into the form of a story. Epic has grand style of composition. Milton imitated the style and structure of epic from Roman Virgil’s Aeneid and Virgil from Homer. Epics are the great literature of a nation and the source of further literatures and rich cultural heritage. First born oral traditions and through it epics travelled from generation to generation. We did not read the original Ramayana but know about it and can recite incidents from it. It reached to us through oral traditions in many languages. 

In English we have long narrative poem Beowulf by an unknown poet. It is the most ancient poem in English composed in the late 10th and early 11th century. Then we have Milton’s Paradise Lost which begins with the invocation to Muse (Goddess of poetry): 

“Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste

Brought death into the world, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,

Sing, Heavenly Muse…..”

Invocation, the beginning and provocation, the last part or ending are the significant elements of epics in English. 

2. Lyric: the shorter form of poetry composed in a few lines. Lyre was an instrument used to create musical beats as an accompaniment to the song. The word and form lyric developed from the Greek lyre, an external musical instrument. Music is an integral part of lyric. Words (vowel and consonant sounds) are systematically arranged to create music through lines. The poem is built around single emotion or feeling and a brief expression of the poet. The sound quality of words are significant and the poet is more conscious in selection of sound generating words; e.g. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, The Splendour Falls on Castle Walls:  

“Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,

Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O hark, o hear! how thin and clear,

And thinner, clearer, farther going!

O sweet and far from cliff and scar

The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!”

The poem itself includes musical sounds and hence doesn’t need a lyre. Generally the lyric can be structured in three parts explaining the moods of the poet—first few lines or stanza relates to the emotion or thought the poet began with, second part the progress and maturity of that emotion and last part or stanza a comment on or summary of that emotion initiated in the first stanza. Rabindranath Tagore, perhaps the composer of the largest number of lyrics (more than one thousand lyrics), provided an example of finest lyrics in Geetanjali or Song Offerings, a collection of 103 lyrics originally in Bengali, later translated into English by poet himself. Let’s see one of the famous lyrics:

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls”

3. Sonnet: it is one of the famous forms of poetry simply defined as a poem of fourteen (14) lines with single emotion or thought. The form is originated in Italy and made famous by the poet Petrarch in the late 13th century. Later in the early 16th century, first Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard introduced it in England and then the poets like Shakespeare used it extensively. Generally sonnets were composed around love theme or emotions, but there is no such restriction on the theme of sonnet. Following are the types of sonnet:

i. Italian/ Classical/ Petrarchan Sonnet: it is a poem advocating single thought or emotion. It is divided into two parts—octave, a stanza of eight lines and sestet, a stanza of four lines each which is called quatrain. Sestet also has two stanzas of three lines called tercet. After eighth line there is a pause called caesura shown with full stop and the beginning of first line in next stanza i.e. sestet which shows turn in thought indicated as volta. The rhyming scheme of this form is in octave: abba, abba and in sestet: cde, cde or cdc, dcd or cde, dce. Milton’s sonnet When the Assault was Intended to the City is an example of this type. 

ii. The English Sonnet: when the form came to England, Howard made some changes in the composition, especially the rhyming pattern. The sonnet is composed in three quatrains and a couplet at the end; hence there is no caesura and volta. The rhyming scheme is: abab, cdcd, efef and gg. This form is prolifically used by Shakespeare and hence known as the Shakespearean Sonnet. It also sometimes called as the Elizabethan Sonnet. For examples we can read any of Shakespeare’s sonnets among his 154 sonnets. His love sonnets still are very popular.

iii. Spenserian Sonnet: it is a variety of English/ Shakespearean type with a little difference. Edmund Spenser, well known Elizabethan poet, interlinked the stanzas which were separate in Shakespeare and changed the rhyming scheme as: abab, bcbc, cdcd and ee. His Amoretti is a popular collection of this type. 

4. Ode: ode has its origin in Greek and a serious poem longer to lyric. And rhyming is followed in this form of poetry. Here are a few distinguishing features:

i. It is based on dignified and serious theme or subject matter like significant public event, death of high ranked person, foundation of some institution of national importance, etc. Andrew Marvell’s Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland and Lord Tennyson’s Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington are examples. 

ii. It is longer to lyric and consists of progress of emotions or feelings at larger extent. Its expression and style is elaborative.

iii. It is often in the form of an address or addressed to a person or object. Generally very first lines include an address as in P.B. Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn and Tennyson’s Virgil. 

iv. The poet is more conscious in selection of subject and its manner of presentation using impressive diction and language. Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality differs from his other romantic poems. 

There are two types of odes: the Dorian Ode and the Lesbian Ode.

a. The Dorian/ Pindaric Ode: it accompanies the music and dance and based on the movements of dance; the stanzas are composed in three parts: strophe, dancers move from right to left; antistrophe, the dancers move opposite from left to right; and epode, the dancers don’t move but stand still. 

b. The Lesbian/ Horatian Ode: it is simpler form consists of many stanzas but has similar length and structure. Thought or emotion is fully developed by using exalted language and style. The form is made more famous by two great Roman poets, Horace and Catullus. Later the English poets imitated this form and recognized as Horatian Ode. But the English poets have developed their own style and composition with a slight alterations and did not fix themselves to classical rules. Marvell’s Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland is a Horatian Ode. 

5. Elegy: the form is originated in Greece connoting the grave and sometimes cheerful feelings with varied themes or subject matters. Rather than its matter, the metre was crucial in ancient 

Greek elegy. Elegiac measure was a couplet in particular metrical composition i.e. a dactylic hexameter followed by dactylic pentameter. In dactyl, one long/ stressed syllable is followed by two short/ unstressed syllables and this pattern repeats for six (hexa) times in the first line. And in second line, the same pattern occurs for five (penta) times. This was the strict rule of classical elegy. But the English poets did not adhere to this rule of metre, instead they considered the matter or theme prominent. Now elegy is a lamentation, a mournful or sorrowful song composed on someone beloved’s death or sad event. It reflects the very sad mood or the gloom of the poet as in Thomas Gray’s famous elegy, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. 

The Pastoral Elegy: this is a form of elegy found in Renaissance English poetry in which pastoral and rustic elements are central. The poet disguises himself as a shepherd and laments over the loss of friend. The death of a friend is central in such kind of poetry. The scene, setting and atmosphere is taken from rural nature and the language and diction is used accordingly. Examples of pastoral elegies: Milton’s Lycidas (on the death of his friend Edward King), Mathew Arnold’s Thyrsis (in memory of his poet companion A.H. Clough) and Spenser’s collection Shepherd’s Calendar. 

6. Ballad: it is the oldest form of English poetry because it originated from folk traditions and has its roots before Chaucer. Primarily it is a story told in verse. The wandering singers or band of singers used to entertain people village to village and earned their livelihood. These people who roamed from one place to another for entertainment of people are called minstrels. The song (ballad) was accompanied with music and dance. Often the actions of great men were the subject of ballad. The song is composed in ballad measure i.e. quatrains of iambic tetrameter (first and third line, a short syllable followed by a long syllable for four times) and iambic tri-meter (second and fourth line, same pattern for three times). Later the pattern was not followed very strictly. Ballad begins with abrupt note and is impersonal. We don’t find anything about poet or his/ her personality. The poet talks about other person or object. The lines are repeated to form an effect upon listeners. There is a collection of ancient English ballads Reliques of Ancient English Poetry published by Bishop Percy in 1765. 

We have two types of ballads: Ballad of Growth or Authentic Ballad which is natural came from ancient tradition without fix authorship and the second is Literary Ballad or Ballad of Art, a conscious effort to write ballads. Again we have a form of Literary Ballad i.e. Mock Ballad in which trivial or comic subject treated as serious as in original ballad. 

Examples: Authentic Ballad: Chevy Chase, The Wife of Usher’s Well, Sir Patric Spens

Literary Ballad: Walter Scott’s Eve of St. John, Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner  

Mock Ballad: William Cowper’s John Gilpin and William Maginn’s The Rime of the Ancient Waggoner 

7. Idyll: it’s not a separate kind of poetry but part of other forms. Sometime it is a lyric or longer to lyric. The salient feature of idyll is it must create a visual picture or image in the mind of readers through the description and use of words. The task of idyll is to show the picture of what the poet has seen or observed or what did the poet imagine. The very meaning of the Greek word idyll is “a little picture”. 

Examples: Milton’s L’Allegro, Wordsworth’s Lines Written in March, Tennyson’s English Idylls and Robert Browning’s Dramatic Idylls. A few lines from Lines Written in March: 

“The Cock is crowing,

The stream is flowing,

The small birds twitter,

The lake doth glitter”.

8. Blank Verse: it is rather a stanza form composed in the lines of iambic pentameter i.e. a short syllable followed by a long syllable for five times in the line. It is a natural pattern of rhythm of English language and used by many poets in writing poems and plays or poetic dramas. The rhyming pattern is rarely used or not used at all. Examples: Milton’s Paradise Lost, Wordsworth’s Prelude, Browning’s The Ring and the Book, Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight, Tennyson’s Tears Idle Tears, Wallace Stevens’ Sunday Morning and Eliot’s play Murder in Cathedral. 

9. Free Verse: it can also be considered as a form of stanza in which the metre and rhyming is abandoned and lines have irregular length but continuity. Poet attempts to control the rhythm intact for the poetic effect. Examples: Langston Hughes’ Mother to Son and four lined poem of A.R. Ammon’s Small Song:

“The reeds give

Way to the

Wind and give

The wind away”.

These are the very basic forms of poetry and not restricted to it only. We can distinguish poetry with the following elements too:

10. Satirical Poetry

11. Allegorical Poetry

12. Eclogue (a poem in dialogue has pastoral setting)

13. Epigram (two or four lines poem, clever and witty in tone) e.g. Alexander Pope’s Epigram:

“I am His Highness’ dog at Kew;

Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?”

14. Triolet (a poem of eight lines as Thomas Hardy’s Birds at Winter) 

And to this list, further types based on various elements can be added such as Romantic Poetry, Elizabethan Poetry, Love Poetry, Absurd Poetry, Abstract Poetry, Poetry of Anger, and many more.   


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Author: Datta G Sawant