Can Poetry Be Bad for You?

George Dunlop Leslie, "Woman Reading"

In my Theories of the Reader course, we are preparing to read Wayne Booth, who makes an interesting point about literature’s influence.  Many of us argue that literature is good for us, but Booth says this claim is meaningful only if we allow the possibility that some literature can also be bad for us. Otherwise we are like bad scientists, choosing to look at only that evidence that confirms what we already believe.

Booth notes that liberals don’t like to talk about literature having a bad impact because they fear sounding like elitist snobs (“it can harm those who, unlike us, fail to see the dangers”) or even prudes in favor of censorship (“we need to keep the book out of the hands of those who can’t handle it”).  Of course, in this day and age censors almost sound quaint in thinking that literature can make a difference. Censorship is unnecessary if no one is reading anyway.

But going back to an a time when people did a lot of reading, it’s interesting to look at a Jane Austen passage that grapples with this issue.  In Persuasion, Anne Elliott sees the poetry of Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott as having a potentially deleterious effect on weak minds. Captain Benwick has turned to their poetry to console himself over the death of his fiancé, and Anne is worried that, rather than doing him good, poetry is just encouraging him to wallow in self pity.  She recommends to him, almost as a bracing tonic, moralistic essays. She may well have in mind, among others, the Rambler and Idler essays of Samuel Johnson.  Here’s the passage:

[I]t fell to Anne’s lot to be placed rather apart with Captain Benwick; and a very good impulse of her nature obliged her to begin an acquaintance with him. He was shy, and disposed to abstraction; but the engaging mildness of her countenance, and gentleness of her manners, soon had their effect; and Anne was well repaid the first trouble of exertion. He was evidently a young man of considerable taste in reading, though principally in poetry; and besides the persuasion of having given him at least an evening’s indulgence in the discussion of subjects, which his usual companions had probably no concern in, she had the hope of being of real use to him in some suggestions as to the duty and benefit of struggling against affliction, which had naturally grown out of their conversation. For, though shy, he did not seem reserved: it had rather the appearance of feelings glad to burst their usual restraints; and having talked of poetry, the richness of the present age, and gone through a brief comparison of opinion as to the first-rate poets, trying to ascertain whether Marmion [Scott] or The Lady of the Lake [Scott] were to be preferred, and how ranked the Giaour [Byron] and The Bride of Abydos [Byron], and moreover, how the Giaour was to be pronounced, he shewed himself so intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet, and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other; he repeated with such tremulous feeling the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry, and to say that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.

His looks showing him not pained, but pleased with this allusion to his situation, she was emboldened to go on; and feeling in herself the right of seniority of mind, she ventured to recommend a larger allowance of prose in his daily study; and on being requested to particularize, mentioned such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering, as occurred to her at the moment as calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances.

Scott and Byron have one salutary effect: they manage to seduce a suddenly weak-minded Louisa Musgrove, who falls in love with Benwick as they read them together, thereby freeing up Wentworth to marry Anne. But that doesn’t mean that Austen thinks it is healthy for Louisa.

Here’s my favorite poem from Scott’s Lady of the Lake, which I read in a poetry contest (winning second place) when I was a high school freshman. I found it terribly romantic then. I’ve moved on since, which may confirm Anne’s point that Benwick needs to be an adult:

Soldier, rest! thy warfare o’er,
Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking:
Dream of battled fields no more,
Days of danger, nights of waking.
In our isle’s enchanted hall,
Hands unseen thy couch are strewing,
Fairy strains of music fall,
Every sense in slumber dewing.
Soldier, rest! thy warfare o’er,
Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking,
Morn of toil, nor night of waking.

No rude sound shall reach thine ear,
Armour’s clang, or war-steed champing,
Trump nor pibroch summon here
Mustering clan, or squadron tramping.
Yet the lark’s shrill fife may come
At the day-break from the fallow,
And the bittern sound his drum,
Booming from the sedgy shallow.
Ruder sounds shall none be near,
Guards nor warders challenge here,
Here’s no war-steed’s neigh and champing,
Shouting clans or squadrons stamping.

Huntsman, rest! thy chase is done,
While our slumbrous spells assail ye,
Dream not, with the rising sun,
Bugles here shall sound reveillé.
Sleep! the deer is in his den;
Sleep! thy hounds are by thee lying;
Sleep! nor dream in yonder glen,
How thy gallant steed lay dying.
Huntsman, rest; thy chase is done,
Think not of the rising sun,
For at dawning to assail ye,
Here no bugles sound reveillé.

This entry was posted in Austen (Jane), Byron (Lord Gordon), Scott (Sir Walter) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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