Introduction

The Greek philosopher Plato said that in an ideal state, poets should have no place. According to him poets are deceivers and should be made to live on the outskirts of society, and poetry, by playing on the emotions, and thus, undermining man's highest quality - reason. But according to his disciple, Aristotle, poetry helps educate people by representing the actions of great men as an example to others. Poetry has long been the medium through which man has expressed his creativity, until it was superseded by the novel. Treatises were written on how literary works should be written and being conversant in the poetical works that were published was regarded as a mark of fine breeding.

Writers held a high place in society, and enjoyed the company of the aristocratic class. This would not have been if the art of poetry did not have a high place in society. But it has been wondered time and again, what is the purpose which poetry serves in society? Or for that matter, what purpose does singing, or dancing, or painting, or any kind of creative pursuit, serve? Writing a poem does not build a house, or solve the problem of poverty, or stop a war. Then is it a waste of time to write and read poetry? Now, it is true that while the aristocratic classes of old had more leisure time on their hands which enabled them to spend more time on these pursuits, which was denied to the lower classes, who had no time or use for sentimentality. Then there are those who posit that all literature should follow certain moral and ethical codes of conduct, as literature has the power to lead people astray. So should we completely remove such activities from our lives so that we can focus on more concrete issues, or for that matter, should we regulate literary productions so that they fit a certain code?

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The Question of the Role of Poets in Society

The First World War decisively changed the world forever. The very form of literary works had to be changed to reflect the great change which had coloured the lives of everyone who had to live through it. In the Romantic period, poets had ignored the rapidly changing world and chose to wrote about idyllic scenes in nature, and beautiful myths and legend. But for the Modernist poets, being relevant to their current age was very important. Poets who had actually taken part in the war effort wrote devastating poems which broke the illusions surrounding the heroic nature of war, and described the horrors and dehumanising scenes which a soldier had to live through on the battlefield. Wilfred Owen, a famous war-poet, dedicated his poem, "Dulce et Decorum est" to Jessie Pope, a poet who wrote poems infuencing young people to join the war effort. W. H. Auden, another popular poet who wrote on the subject of war, was in his later years, worried about the kind of poetry he had earlier written (and on which his fame was built), believing that it was unauthentic, and gave his readers a false idea.

These poets obviously believed in the power of poetry to influence the world, even if their poetry couldn't change it. They belived they had duties to perform as writers and poets, especially when their poetry was meant for mass consumption. Medieval English texts such as Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales", and William Langland's "Piers Plowman" are useful sources of information about the times in which these poets lived, and serve as commentaries on the state of their societies, as considered by men who had a certain moral code. Such information is important for us. History is not just a record of people who long dead, it serves as a reminder of our past, and these reminders are particularly important for us today. The literature that we write today is a warning to future generations about the mistakes we have already committed, and the wrongs which still have to be righted. Today, as the world stands on the brink of another World War, when the world still has not recovered from the blow of the last one, we are at least a little better prepared to deal with the horrifying picture of our collective future. It is this knowledge which prevents us from precipitating the end of our world.

As for the question of the utility of creative pursuits, and the relative importance and unimportance of different courses of study, one might argue that even scientific advancement, which is considered to be the most important thing in the world, has not infact, made the world a better place, but has instead made it easier for us to blow each other up at the slightest provocation. People are turning away from science today, to instead turn towards going back to an earlier stage of life, in an effort to save the world from the damage that has been done to it, and prevent more from taking place. But is it right to point fingers at science itself, when it has also been the means to make life better for the common man, and when the culprit is not science itself, but the hubris of man?

While some express their creativity through writing or painting, others do it through the medium of science or mathematics. It is futile to try to stop people from exercising their creative gifts, since these have been endowed to us since birth, and are not seperable so easily. There are ofcourse, those who say that literary output should be controlled and censored to prevent it from polluting the masses. These means are usually taken by despotic governments, to maintain their power, and however innocent the initiative might be, it ultimately turns out to be a means to exercise control over the activities of other people. The literature which is reviled during the lifetime of the author, is often revered after his/her death. What immortalises a piece of literary work is the degree of authorial truth which seeps out into the finished product, and how well the reader/audience can connect with it. Let us now take a brief look at the poetry of some popular poets.

Poet: Christina Gabriel Rosetti

Christina Gabriel Rosetti was born in the year 1830, in a family which encouraged her literary aspirations. Her brother, Dante Gabriel Rosetti was a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists who were discontented with prevailing conventions of poetry. Christina, although not a member of the group, was nonetheless connected to it through her brother. When she died in 1894, her reputation was already established as the greatest poetess of the age.

Her poetry is influenced by her Christian beliefs, although not every poem she writes is directly related to it. Her writing insists on the danger of the world; when she was informed that she had breast cancer, she was terrified, not because of death, but due to the possibility of damnation. She refused to sign up to the cause of women's suffrage, due to the Biblical belief that women are subordinate to men, but that coexists with her belief that by their subordination, women mirror the position of Christ, through their obedience and patience.

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Her nursery rhyme, "Who has seen the wind?", acknowledges the presence of a mysterious supernatural figure which cannot be seen, but its presence is felt, Who has seen the wind?

Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads
 The wind is passing by.

Here, the invisible force of the wind, might be a substitute for divine power, which makes everything bow when it passes by.

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Her poem Goblin Market, is full of rich and suggestive imagery:

Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;

In this poem, two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, are tempted by the enticing variety of fruit offered by goblin men. While Lizzie warns Laura to be careful not to interact with them or buy their fruit, Laura is unable to stop herself, and as a result sits wasting away until Lizzie's love for her saves her. The poem might be interpreted as a warning against worldly temptations, or a warning against sexual transgressions for women. It suggests the possibility of redemption for so-called fallen women, through the redemption of Laura.

Christina Rossetti's poetry is often studied in the context of gender issues and sexuality, but it is being increasingly recognised as the most beautiful and imaginative of the period by either sex.

Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke is widely considered to be the most intensely lyrical of German poets. As C. M. Bowra observed in Rainer Maria Rilke: Aspects of His Mind and Poetry, “Where others have found a unifying principle for themselves in religion or morality or the search for truth, Rilke found his in the search for impressions and the hope these could be turned into poetry... For him Art was what mattered most in life.”

According to Colin Wilson, Duino Elegies “might well be called the greatest set of poems of modern times,” and "have had as much influence in German-speaking countries as [T. S. Eliot‘s] The Waste Land has in England and America.” They are called Duino Elegies because Rilke began writing them in 1912 while staying at Duino Castle on the Italian Adriatic coast; the collection took ten years to complete. The unifying poetic image used by Rilke throughout Duino Elegies is that of angels, which carry many meanings, although they are not the usual Christian connotations. The angels represent a higher force in life, both beautiful and terrible, completely indifferent to mankind; they represent the power of poetic vision, as well as Rilke’s personal struggle to reconcile art and life.

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In the first elegy, Rilke calls out to the angels to help, but goes on to conclude that the power and beauty of the angels is such that encountering one would result in his annihilation: For beauty is nothing but

the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear, and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.
And so I hold myself back and swallow the cry of a darkened sobbing. Ah, who then can we make use of? Not Angels: not men,
and the resourceful creatures see clearly that we are not really at home in the interpreted world.
The poet thus tries to find consolation in more earthly things but finds that none can console him.

The third elegy examines the power and the beauty of the female embrace. As boys grow into men, they leave the protective arms of the mother for the loving arms of the lover: See, we don’t love like flowers, in a single year: when we love, an ancient sap rises in our arms. O, girls,

this: that we loved inside us, not one to come, but
the immeasurable seething: not a single child, but the fathers: resting on our depths
like the rubble of mountains: the dry river-beds of those who were mothers - : the whole silent landscape under a clouded or clear destiny - : girls, this came before you.

The third elegy has exposes our deeper conditions of being, our continuity with the past, and our past consciousness, reflected in childhood development, and expressed later in sexuality where the feminine and masculine elements need to be fused to create new life.

Poetry represents the flow of human feelings into words. We read poetry for the pleasure it gives as well as for the way it can resonate with our deepest feelings, feelings universal to everyone.

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