According to Book 5 of Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, what makes good poetry?
Browning has several points about poetry to make in this section. First, she evaluates her own poetry. For instance, she criticises her poem “The Hills”:
The prospects were too far and indistinct.
'Tis true my critics said, 'A fine view, that!'
The public scarcely cared to climb the book
For even the finest; and the public's right,
A tree's mere firewood, unless humanised
She suggests that there is an inner meaning to things, “outside the limits of our space and time,” that the poet should strive to capture. “The Hills” failed in her view because it was “a book of surface-pictures—pretty, cold and false.”
Next, she argues that the epic is the proper form for this “inner” poetic expression. She makes an important distinction, however. Modern epics should not relive the glory of the past; instead, they should seek to represent the current time in which they live. As she puts it, the task of the poet is to “represent the age”:
Their age, not Charlemagne's,–this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,
Than Roland with his knights, at Roncesvalles.
She also argues that the poet should be independent of the influence of critics—rather than writing to please critical opinion, the poet writes only for the sake of art. As she puts it,
What the poet writes,
He writes: mankind accepts it, if it suits,
And that's success: if not, the poem's passed
From hand to hand, and yet from hand to hand,
Until the unborn snatch it, crying out
In pity on their fathers' being so dull,
And that's success too.
In the extended discussion of poetry that this Book contains, the narrator discusses what, to her mind, makes good poetry and what detracts from it. In particular, what she finds to be problematic about so much poetry is how poets insist on looking back into history for their inspiration and refuse to engage with the present. The problem with always harking back to some kind of "golden age," the narrator argues, is that "death inherits death," and that poetry should engage with the present and the events of the now rather than the history of yesterday. Note what she says about the kind of qualities that poets should strive to gain:
But poets should
Exert a double vision; should have eyes
To see near things as comprehensibly
As if afar they took their point of sight,
And distant things, as intimately deep,
As if they touched them. Let us strive for this.
Poetry should therefore be able to look both upon "near things," or events going on in their lifetime, from a distance, and be able to put them in to the context of what has gone on before, or "distant things." They need to have the ability to change with the times and explore what is going on in the present and place that in the larger picture of what has gone before, rather than merely looking to the past alone for their inspiration.